Congolese rebel militia in 2012. Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty
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Journey into fear: Denis Johnson's violent vision of Africa is hollow - and false

The Laughing Monsters has no tension - this is a sour, overwrought novel which fills a continent with cheap laughs and cardboard villians.

The Laughing Monsters
Denis Johnson
Harvill Secker, 228pp, £12.99

Take Graham Greene at his most world-weary or Evelyn Waugh at the extremes of his cackling wickedness – and they still come across as more hopeful than Denis Johnson in his new novel, The Laughing Monsters. This is the latest work by an American novelist acclaimed for ecstatic, lyrically violent stories about crazed men and women in crazy situations (as with his best-known works, the short-story collection Jesus’ Son and the National Book Award-winning Vietnam war epic Tree of Smoke). In The Laughing Monsters, Johnson recalls Greene’s Heart of the Matter and Waugh’s Scoop. He has written a novel that treats calamities, chaos and absurdity
as the baseline of life in Africa, as experienced by various westerners moving through the continent.

Within this tumult, Greene and Waugh could at least identify characters motivated by good intentions, or hapless characters worthy of pity, or sinister characters who were still capable of some kindness and mercy. Johnson, however, focuses fully on those whose basic and governing nihilism is relieved only by their lust for money, power and sex, which feed the empty beast all the more. If nothing else, The Laughing Monsters is a perfectly titled book.

Narrated with an unstinting swagger by Roland Nair – a half-Scandinavian, half-American intelligence agent and military contractor for hire – the novel follows his dangerous involvement in murky dealings in Sierra Leone, Uganda, Congo and elsewhere. In every instance, Nair both collaborates with and conducts surveillance on a fellow agent and contractor, a young African man named Michael Adriko. The two men know each other from intersecting stints with Nato and the US forces in Afghanistan, years earlier.

After they are reunited in Africa, Adriko approaches Nair with a cynical offer, based on the former’s confident view that contemporary Africa is a combustible mash-up of western military and local interests. In other words, it’s a place ripe for canny mercenaries to get decadent quick. And so Adriko promises Nair that if he helps him with a black-market uranium deal involving Israeli agents, Nair will be rewarded with far more than filthy lucre alone:

“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 . . . 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.”

Beyond his shrugging interest in Adriko’s promised payout, which is in keeping with his shrugging penchant for hard drink and for picking up mechanically alluring prostitutes by the poolside of Freetown hotels, Nair reasons that working with Adriko will allow him to report on Adriko’s activities to the Nato intelligence office for which he is currently freelancing. We learn that the office co-operates with US military intelligence in Africa, which in turn has an interest in Adriko, not least because he ran away with a US military base commander’s daughter. Beautiful and blithe, this woman catches Nair’s eye as well, even though he conducts an email romance with a Nato co-worker based in Amsterdam throughout the book. Adriko plans to wed her in an elaborate ceremony in his Ugandan village, with Nair invited to attend – that is, after the deal goes down.

If this sounds convoluted, wait until the deal goes bad: gunfire and bloodshed ensue; Nair, Adriko and Adriko’s fiancée abscond and are captured by the Congolese military, who imprison them in an open-air facility that is full of local men and women detained under any number of sketchy charges. Nair gets out, following some
mutual interrogation with visiting US military officials.

From them, he receives a renewed order to spy on Adriko (who has sweet-talked his way out of the prison), only then to get mixed up with a clownishly tyrannical village matriarch, some unflappable Christian missionaries and anonymous NGO workers in extremely clean SUVs. Eventually, Nair has a more direct confrontation with Adriko, who is now completely unhinged and wielding a machete, which only gives way to more bedlam and still more bedlam after that.

Beyond the picaresque pandemonium of its action, the book is full of spy and tech jargon and obscure references to people, places and events from Nair’s and Adriko’s past and parallel lives outside this African misadventure. It’s all a mess: both Africa as the novel conjures it and the novel itself. No doubt a case can be made that the telling of this tale has to be like this in order to be true to the place and the people it reveals. There’s a grad-student profundity to that possibility but little more than that.

Some relief can be found from the novel’s muddle, here and there, in the sort of brilliantly strange and beguiling prose pictures that Johnson has long been known for. Nair tells us that following a sudden storm that drowned out the noise of the teeming life outside his hotel room, “The creatures had resumed, the bugs that chimed like porcelain, frogs that belched like drunkards, and now more frogs, snorting like pigs.” And, in the middle of another storm, Nair describes how: “Michael and I stood under the awning of a cycle shop, trying to carve a plan out of the rain.”

But it is neither here nor there whether the plan works out or not. In thought, word and deed, Nair tells us that nothing really matters, in a place such as Africa, except staying alive if you’re native and staying alive and getting rich and powerful if you’re a foreigner.

In Johnson’s better books, never mind Waugh’s and Greene’s, characters too much given to romantic nihilism are matched – and, now and then, bested – by those who are capable of opposing views and more humane motives. There is no comparable clash or tension to be found in this sour, overwrought novel, which ends with Nair getting out of the latest fix, ready for the next chance of gaining power and money: opportunities that abound in an Africa full of cheap laughter and cardboard monsters.

Randy Boyagoda’s novels include “Beggar’s Feast” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser