Archive for the ‘Denis Johnson’ Category

The Laughing Monsters

June 14, 2015

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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2012 Catch-up – Train Dreams

January 11, 2013

train dreams

Every year books slip past me unread: those I read or hear about (often immediately thinking, “I must get hold of that!”) but never quite get round to seeking out; those I buy and then stack up in piles which by December I still haven’t reached the bottom of (these are often anything exceeding 500 pages which I put aside for when I have ‘more time’); and, a more recent category, those I download but never open (they’re so easy to ignore…). This year I made a little list of those books that had particularly aggrieved me by escaping – and then I hunted them down during the post-Christmas sales…

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams was not a book I had heard much about during the year, but it did appear on a number of ‘Best of…’ lists in December and sounded intriguing. Johnson was a writer I had never read before- reading a lot of translated fiction I do have a habit of neglecting Americans. It also had the advantage of being short – which at least meant that I would read it – a novella that first appeared in The Paris Review in 2002 (so I suppose I’d already missed it ten years before).

Train Dreams is written in a lean prose though it has a dream-like quality that perhaps comes from the non-chronological nature of the narrative, a series of scenes from the life of its central character, Robert Granier. Any imagery is drawn straight from nature: “like a weasel in a sack”; “like a seed in a wind”; “like a cornered brute.” Granier makes a living from building railway bridges and felling trees. He is granted little happiness: an early memory of returning home to his wife and baby with sarsaparilla he has bought on the way demonstrates his love and reoccurs when he takes a flight in an early plane:

“He saw the moment with his wife and child as they drank Hood’s Sarsaparilla in their little cabin on a summer’s night…”

By that time, however, his wife and child are dead, killed in a bush fire which rages out of control and destroys the cabin completely:

“The cabin was cinders, burned so completely that its ashes has mixed in with a common layer all about and then been tamped down by the snows and washed and dissolved by the thaw.”

Granier settles among the devastation, the mythical outsider in Dante’s version of the American frontier. He is something of a ghost haunting American history: there for the railroads being built, there for that early flight; there to see Elvis; and still there in the 1960s to see another bridge being built across the Moyea River.

Echoing Granier’s loneliness, dogs and wolves form a backdrop to the narrative (even a dog which manages to shoot its owner). When Granier’s dog has wolf pups they soon wander off bar one who will not even howl when it hears the wolves in the distance. It is Granier who howls to teach it its nature, and continues howling having perhaps discovered something of his own. In that early memory of his wife he wonders if their baby daughter knows “as much as a dog-pup?” Later a ‘wolf-girl’ breaks into his cabin and he believes her to be his daughter:

“He hoped that some sign of recognition might show itself and prove her to be Kate. But her eyes only watched in flat terror like a wolf’s.”

All of this feeds into the novel’s under-stated but poignant end.

At times it might seem as if the drop down menu of American fiction has been used – there’s time to fit in a dying hobo and a superstitious Indian on top of everything else – but it is so beautifully written that much can be forgiven. In the end it is both an addition to, and meditation on, American myth.