The Laughing Monsters is a curious novel. Denis Johnson describes it as a “literary thriller,” which it technically is. A tale of derring-do, chicanery, and treason, it feels particularly apposite in the immediate geopolitical moment. Its main characters are parasites on the frenzy accompanying the current scramble for Africa. But it is an elusive work. It reminded me of those novelty palm-card portraits of Jesus whose holographic eyes close, open, and follow you around depending on how you tilt the image.
Which is to say that I think there are two books here, unhappily married, but each meriting serious review. It’s a surprise, what Johnson has undertaken this time.
Johnson isn’t easy to place as a writer, partly because he is so vagarious. Among his many works are poetry, plays, intensely written journalism, screenwriting, fiction short and long. And he could be said to be a little vagarious within individual works, his fiction especially, which switches occasionally from hard realism to modes more lyrical.
With Jesus’ Son (1992), his collection of short stories, Johnson acquired an enduring following. He is a specialist in hard lives lived on the grim margins of the American Dream. He has written eight novels. Of them, the best known is Tree of Smoke, an epic engagement with the Vietnam War that received the National Book Award in 2007. His other novels are very different, and range across genres—Gothic (Already Dead, 1998), crime (Nobody Move, 2009), postapocalypse (Fiskadoro, 1985), unlucky losers on the road (Angels, 1983). His novella Train Dreams was shortlisted for the 2012 Pulitzer.
He is highly regarded for his poetry, much of it falling on a continuum with the dire confessional subject matter of the early novels and stories. His collections are The Man Among the Seals (1969), Inner Weather (1976), The Incognito Lounge (1982), The Veil (1987), and The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly (1995).
Then there are two books of plays, Shoppers (2002) and Soul of a Whore and Purvis (2012). Underlying religious themes have been noted in these dramatic works. Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond (2001) collects twenty years of Johnson’s writings about conflicts in different parts of the world and in the American badlands.
Outwardly, The Laughing Monsters is a familiar sort of third-world novel—to which the words “noir” and “picaresque” could both be applied. The time is nowadays; Susan Rice is identified as the national security adviser. The US has recently sent in Special Forces to hunt down the Kony brothers’ infamous Lord’s Resistance Army.
I first took the novel’s thinness—whether in mise-en-scène, dialogue, character, the building blocks of strong narrative—as evidence of a lack of authorial conviction, but on reflection, I believe it arises from conflicts between what I’m calling the outer book and the inner one. I thought briefly that the thinness of texture could be interpreted as a simple deficiency in the ability of Roland Nair, the first-person narrator of The Laughing Monsters, to express himself. Nair turns out to be smarter than his style of narration suggests, but the flatness of it takes its toll.
The story concerns three characters at large together in Sierra Leone, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are Nair, a Danish-American NATO employee; Michael Adriko, a Westernized Congolese and Ugandan, and a special attaché to US Special Operations who has gone AWOL; and Davidia St. Claire, a black American in her early twenties, a Ph.D. candidate taking time out to work for the high-minded Institute for Policy Studies. This connection is something of a puzzle, in view of the company she is keeping in the novel. She is engaged to marry Adriko. Both men are in their middle thirties.
Teasing out some rationale for the criminal turn these friends have taken becomes a preoccupation for the reader. The partners have some differences in their criminal motivations. Early on, Adriko gives a sense of what he wants:
Now he stood in the middle of the room, offering me tomorrow in his two outstretched hands. “Do you want a plan? I’m just going to give you results. You’ll live like a king. A compound by the beach. Fifty men with AKs to guard you. The villagers come to you for everything. They bring their daughters, twelve years old—virgins, Nair, no AIDS from these girls. You’ll have a new one every night. Five hundred men in your militia. You know you want it. They dance at night, a big bonfire, and the magic men come and stretch their arms to the length of a python…drums pounding, and naked dancers, all just for you, Nair! We want it. That’s what we want. And you know it’s here. There’s no place else on earth where we can have it.”
“This land of chaos, despair—”
“And in the midst of it, we make ourselves unreachable. A man can choose a valley, one with narrow entrances—defensible entries—and claim it as his nation, like Rhodes in Rhodesia—”
“I can’t believe I hear a black man talking like this.”
Nair knows that Adriko is promoting a fantasy utopia of sheer cupidity and lust for power. Does Nair have a utopia of his own? Apparently not. Here he imagines himself speaking frankly to his NATO bosses:
And while you, my superiors, may think I’ve come to join him [Adriko] because you dispatched me here, you’re mistaken. I’ve come back because I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart. Michael only makes my excuse for returning.
So he is in it for the charge he gets from chaos. And this rather shallow vitalism is as much about his motivation as we get from him.
Nair has come to Freetown on a confidential assignment from NATO intelligence to secure updated information on the activities of his old comrade-in-arms Adriko, who has apparently been up to something obscure and unsavory. Nair and Adriko were together in Afghanistan seven years earlier. Nair has a separate personal and equally confidential mission: he intends to betray NATO secrets for cash. He has a contact lined up. Davidia’s understanding is that she has come to Africa to take part in a pre-wedding ritual to be held at Adriko’s ancestral village in the Ugandan bush near a place called Newada Mountain; she’ll then marry him. It develops along the way that Adriko is trying to pull off a couple of covert scams of his own, one involving stolen uranium and another involving fake gold ingots. Adriko allows Nair only fragmentary glimpses of his schemes. Davidia is preoccupied with being in love.
Adriko is the principal mover in the group of three—a control freak, he determines the group’s itinerary, arbitrarily rearranging it in the interests of his own secret agenda. He exercises a strange, charismatic power over the others. He has forbidden Davidia to communicate with her father and has confiscated her cell phone. She doesn’t seem to mind:
She said, “Do you know who my father is?”
An unexpected query. “I guess not.”
“Michael didn’t tell you? My Dad’s his CO—the garrison commander at Fort Carson. Colonel Marcus St. Claire.”
“Oh my lord,” I said, “oh my lord.” I jumped up to say something else and only said, “Oh my lord.”
“Until I met Michael, I’d only known two loves: love for my father, and love for my country. Now I love Michael, too.”
“But you said your Dad and you were on the outs.”
“It’s complicated. It’s family. I’d say we’re estranged. All the same, he loves Michael as much as I do. Everybody loves Michael. Don’t you love him, Nair?”
“I can’t resist him. Let’s put it that way.” And I added, “Oh my lord.”
Over several weeks, the action moves from Freetown to Entebbe to the Uganda–Congo borderlands and back to Freetown, where Nair’s act of treason is successfully performed—he sells, to a man named Hamid, maps of the US military’s fiber optics cables in seven West African countries along with the coordinates for twelve clandestine NIIA Technology Safe Houses.
The end of the journey, for Davidia, is odd and abrupt. She never makes it back to Freetown with the boys. On their trek into the bush, they never get to Adriko’s home village. They locate an impoverished, derelict place presided over by an insane prophetess who spends her days in a chair hoisted to the top of a tree. A rogue squadron of the Congolese army captures the trio and holds them until the silver-tongued Adriko, so we are told, talks the Congolese into releasing them. A unit of the American expeditionary forces tracking the Lord’s Resistance Army in that area rescues the travelers and puts Davidia on a plane back to the US. Adriko’s several scams fail to earn him anything except a few injuries.
Nair is sorry Davidia is gone. Between e-mails to his girlfriend Tina, he had been carrying on a flirtation with her. Tina, who was assisting him in his scheme and sending the occasional nude selfie, has been casually hung out to dry. He has used her as a link in his criminal machinations, well aware from the beginning that her participation would be detected by her NATO bosses.
After Davidia’s departure, Nair realizes that he had fallen in love with her. Oddly, Adriko knew of Nair’s flirtation with his fiancée, but has viewed it with equanimity. How strongly anyone takes anything is a persistent question about these characters. One of Nair’s moves on Davidia is a classic of interpersonal bullshit. He says to her:
I’ve known Michael for almost twelve years, and all this time I’ve thought I was infatuated with him, and I was wrong. All the time I’ve known him I’ve been infatuated with you. Waiting in infatuation for you to materialize. For him to produce you, conjure you, bring you, fetch you.
Certain standard features native to this kind of thriller are lacking. For example, it’s usual for the tradecraft employed by spies to be interesting in itself, devious, patently clever. In The Laughing Monsters, the tradecraft is mainly mystifying, involving as it does the manipulation of complicated electronic devices. Also, the evocation of Africa by Nair is limited to complaints about heat, dust, and unreliable air conditioning. The African bit players—waiters, petty functionaries, prostitutes—are all familiar types. It’s very hard for an American, even someone like Nair, to be anywhere in Africa and not encounter something exotic. The particularities of current events in Sierra Leone and Uganda—beyond the larger issues of big-power conflict—might have merited a side glance by Nair or somebody; that would have been in keeping with thrillers set in darkest Africa.
If you try to tick off the choices made that undermine the outer novel’s plausibility, there is a big one: Johnson has gone against the reigning popular insistence on likable protagonists. This is a rising tide, not only, as usual, in genre fiction but in more serious literary work as well. (A sharp, rousing dissection of a particular aspect of this very issue can be found in an interview with Claire Messud in the April 29, 2013, issue of Publishers Weekly. “The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” Messud said.) I suppose you could say Davidia is likable, but she’s so confused she seems a murky figure. As for the leading men, the author has made an effort to finesse some of the problems caused by their unlikability. In the case of Adriko, he has given him a breezy manner, extreme insouciance, indefatigability, and bad luck with his crimes, which end up resembling pratfalls. His incessant lies are sometimes touchingly ludicrous. As for Nair, Johnson is unable to do much with him. He remains a weasel.
Finally, about the pastiche thriller shell of The Laughing Monsters that I’ve been describing so far, there will be a certain unresolved tension for many readers around the question of redemption. We’ve been trained as members of this culture to relax when redemption follows transgression. One reads The Laughing Monsters with the anticipation that not only are just deserts about to be served but that a little penitence might accompany them. How many times have we enjoyed the moral rebirth of a jewel thief through the miracle of love, or cheered when a down-at-the-heels desperado intent on skimming a large personal share of the government’s bullion on the train throws his lot in with the oppressed rebels instead? These are only conventions, not standards. Roland Nair is one of the great anti-penitents. He has a genius for self-exculpation. Here is his mental farewell to the unfortunate Tina:
Tina, you more than once predicted that the coldness of my heart would someday make you a bitter woman. I think you chose me for exactly that reason. You must have wanted it. If you’re bitter, you devised to become that way, and I think you chose me as your instrument. So stop it. Stop going on and on about it in my mind.
It’s over. The guys are ready for another rumble. Nair has been nominally compliant in his reporting on Adriko and Adriko has acquired a new set of counterfeit travel documents for both of them so they are free to move around. Adriko’s AWOL status has apparently been remedied: he was rescued from the Congolese army by the American troops, the ones who fetched Davidia and from which he’d gone absent. Here they are, getting ready for their next move:
“How much will you profit, Nair, how much money?”
“One hundred K US. That’s the price for betraying absolutely everyone.”
“But, Nair—you didn’t betray me.”
“Not quite. Not yet.”
“The slate is clean between us.”
“I tried to steal your girl.”
“I take it as a compliment.”
They have hired a boat to take them somewhere in Africa. Abidjan is a possibility. Nair thinks:
Maybe Liberia. Much is possible there. We’ll claim a patch of jungle and a strip of beach….
Or we might…fly to Kuwait, where Michael…spent several months reorganizing and polishing every aspect of personal security for that country’s emir….
The two heroes are shits, that much is clear. Denis Johnson has successfully created two terrible human beings endowed with energy, stamina, and cunning. They are irredeemable. Behind the foliage of a literary thriller, another book peers out. This inner book appears to be an exercise in blunt moral portraiture. I see Nair and Adriko as Johnson’s Representative Men for our time, a thriving genus. The inner book is an indictment, and it is a despairing work. Nair and Adriko are presented as artifacts of hyperindustrial modern capitalism. They are by-products.
In the outer book, we are led to believe that the Laughing Monsters is the name of a mountain range in Uganda near Adriko’s notional village, a name give to it by James Hannington, a nineteenth-century Anglican martyr, shortly before he was speared to death. But of course the laughing monsters for which the book is named are Adriko and Nair. It’s difficult not to take Davidia’s utter befuddlement as representing complete inattention to ongoing evil and toxic credulity.
What we know about these characters is their activities. Nothing of what we know of their histories helps predict their complete loss of conscience. Adriko has been upwardly mobile in the US military and has only one grievance. He has not been made a line officer. Nair has led a regular if not greatly privileged life and holds a commission in the Danish army. They are spectacularly bereft of allegiances to any entity or belief. They resemble the monster Patrick Bateman, the serial killer cannibal hero of Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Bateman is a character without grievances, unless having divorced parents counts, and in discussions around his book Ellis has explicated Bateman as a sort of distillation or emanation of hyperindividualistic contemporary capitalism.
But is there more depth to Johnson’s intuitions about the social mechanisms involved in producing the cohort of the conscienceless he depicts? In all his major novels, Johnson wrestles with the question of the genesis of evil. The Frenchwoman encountered by Davidia and Nair in a Ugandan hotel seems to be speaking for the author:
Davidia and I shared a table with an elderly, exhausted French woman of Arab descent who told us she studied torture. “And once upon a time before this, I spent years on a study of the Atlantic slave trade. Angola. Now it’s an analysis of the practices of torture under Idi Amin. Slavery. Torture. Don’t call me morbid. Is it morbid to study a disease? That’s how we find a cure for it. What is the cause of man’s inhumanity to man? Desensitization. The numbness of the perpetrator. Whether an activity produces pleasure, pain, discomfort, guilt, joy, triumph—before too long, the soul grows tired and stops feeling. It doesn’t take long. Not too long at all, and then he becomes the devil, he laughs at his former scruples, he enslaves and tortures without compunction.” …Halfway through her dessert of ice cream with chocolate sauce, without a word, she got up and left the table.
It’s standard for the creators of monumentally evil characters to retrofit their monsters with some sort of early misfortune, something that warped them. Max Aue, the antihero of Jonathan Littell’s The Friendly Ones, a murderous participant in the Holocaust, got off on the wrong foot thanks to a sexual relationship with his twin sister (whom he later murders). And Norman Mailer’s Hitler is the product of an incestuous union, which is negatively predisposing, one understands, but he still needs assistance from the actual Satan.
Are Adriko and Nair megamonsters? Only if the consequences of their transgressions led to something earthshaking could they be considered so. But they are pretty bad, and Johnson has gone out of his way to create an entire spectrum of transgressions for us to contemplate. The tally includes Adriko picking up by the throat a beggar who’s annoying him, wringing out the sweat from his headband on a hotel lobby floor, and committing a hit and run on a road out in the bush. Nair commits treason and inculpates his girlfriend. None of these characters is seen to actually enjoy hurting others—it’s not a Sadean novel in that sense.
Denis Johnson is self-identified as a Christian writer. I see this book as a deadpan moral cautionary tale. The outer book is a faux thriller. The book it houses turns out to be a condemnation of a dangerous and dangerously flourishing contemporary social type.
There are moments of art in The Laughing Monsters, but artful prose was not the author’s presiding concern. The aesthetic defects don’t lie in the small slips into poesy. In this book, they’re infrequent. But as I’ve indicated, I believe that the inner book—the moral tale—so compromises the outer book—the thriller—that an artistic deadlock results. What you get is a faux thriller, almost a shaggy dog story (mostly because it doesn’t contain the satisfactions of coherent plotting), layered onto a chronicle of evil actions. Train Dreams, Johnson’s novella that was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, makes a fine companion to the book reviewed here. It is a consummate work of art, a moral study, and achieves a life portrait in highly compressed form of a blameless character utterly opposite to the antiheroes of The Laughing Monsters. It is a powerful book and, like Jesus’ Son, has its own following.
Denis Johnson had something he wanted to say against our times, and he said it. He took bold risks with the forms he employed to do the job. The Laughing Monsters are not the Ugandan mountains overlooking the notional village of Michael Adriko. We know who they are.