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.