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12 March 2015

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.

By randy boyagoda

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:

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“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)