The Laughing Monsters

laughing monsters

If, when you think of spy novels, you envisage meticulous plotting, pitted wits and calculated reveals then Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters may come as something of a shock. The world of espionage which it portrays is one of chaos, where missions don’t simply creep but spiral out of control.

Its narrator, Roland Nair, is an inconsistent hero in an inconsistent continent, Africa. Electricity and internet access come and go in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where Nair arrives searching for Michael Adriko. Nair’s morals and motivations are equally uncertain. When he arrives he spots “a young girl loitering right across the street, selling herself. Poor and dirty, and very pretty. And very young.” Any initial pity or disgust vanishes later when he sends the hotel doorman to collect her:

“I was glad she didn’t know English. I could say whatever I wanted to her, and I did. Terrible things. All the things you can’t say.”

Nair carries with him not only a laptop but a history, hinted at when he meets others in the intelligence game: “We’re on the same side now, Roland, because in the time of peace, you know, there can only be one side.” Michael he has known for years – “He kept me alive on a daily basis,” Nair tells Michael’s new girlfriend, Davida. Despite this, Michael is unwilling to divulge the plan he wishes Nair to participate in beyond telling him:

“I have this mapped from point A to point Z. And, Nair, point Z is going to be marvellous.”

Nair, however, has his own agenda – in fact, he has his own agendas:

“Perhaps Tina and I would be married on my return, after I’d met my contact and sold the goods and made money enough for several honeymoons, and after I’d been relieved of my current duty which was to report on the activities and, if possible, the intentions of Michael Adriko.”

And so Nair, Michael and Davida head for Uganda, where Michael says he will marry Davida among his own people, and arrange the sale that will set them up for life. It would not be revealing too much to say that not everything goes according to Michael’s plan – in fact, it comes of the rails round about B.

Johnson presents a cynical view of the intelligence community where spies are not dedicated patriots, with the occasional bad apple turned by ideology or money, but rootless loners with an addiction to secretive planning. Nair and Michael seek each other out not because they need each other but because, as Nair says of involving Tina in his personal mission, “I couldn’t bear living alone in the abyss.” Michael’s attempt to return to the area where he was born is not just part of his plan, but a desire for belonging; Nair, too, has lost all sense of home, a Dane travelling on a US passport: “A Danish passport is something of a risk, because I hardly speak Danish at all. It makes me look bogus.” In a game played out between nations, the players are stateless. Even Nair’s rather implausibly sudden declaration that he has fallen in love with Davida is credible in the context of his need to not feel alone.

Johnson also turns a jaundiced eye towards the way the West feels it continues to have the right to interfere across the globe:

“Many people keep watch. Nobody sees. It takes a great deal to waken their curiosity. NATO, the UN, the UK, the US – poker-faced, soft-spoken bureaucratic pandemonium. They’re mad, they’re blind, they’re heedless, and not one of them cares. Not one of them.”

Later, in Uganda, we see what is left of a village, poisoned from their land, in scenes that would make Conrad blanch.

Even for a spy novel, The Laughing Monsters is unusually amoral – there is never any suggestion of right or wrong. Nair exemplifies this ambiguity: that his character can, at times, feel less than fully formed seems a part of who he is rather than a weakness on Johnson’s part. It also explain why the novel’s end seems to leave him in exactly the same place as its beginning.

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12 Responses to “The Laughing Monsters”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    Not read him since I read already dead when it came out years ago have two others by him on shelves to read

  2. audreyschoeman Says:

    This sounds interesting but as if it might be a mildly unpleasant (or at least uncomfortable) read. I’ve never heard of Johnson, it certainly doesn’t read like my normal thoughts of spy novels!

    • 1streading Says:

      I don’t think you would class him as a spy novelist, but I believe he has written before about ‘the intelligence community’. It would be fair to say it’s atypical of the genre!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    I’ve read Johnson’s Train Dreams, which I liked very much – a picture of a life in miniature. This one sounds quite different, but I get the impression that his range is quite varied.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, though I read somewhere that Train Dreams and The Laughing Monsters are alternating types in the kind of novels he writes. I also liked Train Dreams – moreso than this – but it’s still an interesting novel.

  4. Tredynas Days Says:

    I too loved Train Dreams, and Jesus’ Son is a superb collection of stories. This one is in the same vein as Tree of Smoke, and I found both a little uneven – but he’s incapable of writing badly. Erratically, yes, but he’s mostly sublime – grittily laconic like Carver, but the Conrad link was also spot on: what Leavis used to call high seriousness. I only finished this recently but never got round to writing about it on my blog – now I don’t need to! Thanks.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thank you. You seem to have read him more widely than I. I agree – Train Dreams is the better novel, but the messiness if this also seemed part of the point. I hadn’t realised Jesus’ Son was a collection of short stories and am now quite tempted to try it!

      • Tredynas Days Says:

        Yes, J Son is gritty, druggy & laconic – but compelling

      • Tredynas Days Says:

        Hope you don’t mind me chipping in on the exchange with Max: DJ does seem to be influenced in part by Greene – the exotic settings, jaded, cynical operatives who’ve lost sight of a moral compass, world gone slightly unrecognisable, trippy; touch of noir in there too – the dodgy dame, hard-bitten sleuthy protagonist, cast of shifty minor characters in the Peter Lorre mould…great fun – but not, in my view, his finest work. He’s always worth reading, though.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting. Am I right that this is one of Johnson’s less well regarded books, or is it a new one and I’m getting them mixed up? I have Train Dreams and Jesus’ Son (I have to really, otherwise WordPress would revoke my book blogging rights), but not this. It sounds rather Graham Greeneian, could there be an influence there?

    • 1streading Says:

      It’s his latest, though it came out a few months ago now. It didn’t get as positive reviews as Train Dreams, certainly. I haven’t read a lot of Greene, but it does remind me a little of A Burnt-Out Case.

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