Pandemonium reigns in a frenetic and brutally comic spy thriller
FANS of the American novelist and short-story writer Denis Johnson often claim that he is under-appreciated. It isn’t an easy case to make. Johnson’s books are reviewed widely and often ecstatically on both sides of the Atlantic. He has won the US National Book Award — for Tree of Smoke (2007), a sprawling, hallucinatory Vietnam epic — and has twice been a Pulitzer finalist, for Tree of Smoke as well as for Train Dreams (2012), a tender, hushed novella about a railway labourer in the early 20th-century West. His linked short-story collection, Jesus’ Son (1992), was voted one of the best books of the decade by readers of The New York Times Book Review, and was turned into a critically acclaimed film with Dennis Hopper and Samantha Morton. He is hardly languishing in obscurity.
But there is a strange quality to Johnson’s writing — a combination of eccentric plotting, deadpan humour and stylishly oblique prose — that makes it feel undeniably cultish, no matter what mainstream success he has achieved. His ninth novel, The Laughing Monsters, takes a Graham Greene-ish setup, but makes from it an utterly distinctive piece of work.
Roland Nair is a Nato spy, back in Africa (the novel begins in Sierra Leone before moving to Uganda and the Congo) after 11 years away. He claims to be Danish, in spite of his jet-black hair, and his eyes are grey or blue, “according to the environment”. His mission is just as ambiguous as his identity: he is either in Africa to report on Michael Adriko, a former bodyguard of his who has murky plans involving a crashed plane’s cargo of enriched uranium, or he is there at Adriko’s bidding; or perhaps he is just looking to exploit the locals, sell American secrets and get very rich.
The two of them, Adriko and Nair, zigzag around the continent with Michael’s fiancée Davidia (whom Nair inevitably falls for) in tow, in a plot that becomes increasingly frantic, violent and absurd as it hurtles towards its conclusion. Along the way there are hundreds of small, brilliantly savage comic details, such as the car marked “Splendid Driving School” that Nair’s taxi has to swerve to avoid when he first arrives in Sierra Leone, and which he sees again, crashed by the roadside, as he’s leaving.
The Laughing Monsters is part espionage thriller and part screwball comedy, and it straddles those far-flung genres with more grace than you might think possible. But it is most remarkable for its portrait of 21st-century Africa as a continent blighted by corruption and overwhelmed by western interference, where everyone is on the make, and everything is counterfeit except for violence and disease.
The pandemonium and the room for moral shiftiness suit Nair perfectly. He is a venal, treacherous opportunist, who sleeps with teenage prostitutes and drinks heavily throughout the day. He has little empathy for the people he manipulates and harms. But “I wasn’t a torturer”, he says. “I’d never stood ankle-deep in the fluids of my victims.” Johnson’s achievement is to reveal to us in lurid detail a world in which that counts as virtue.