‘I’ve come back because I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart.’ The lines belong to Roland Nair, one of the morally bankrupt spies who careers around Africa in Denis Johnson’s tenth novel, but they might equally well describe Johnson himself, a writer always happiest in his work when the wheels come off and the world breaks down.
His novels vary in setting (Prohibition America in Train Dreams, the Vietnam war in Tree of Smoke, a future post-apocalypse in Fiskadoro) but they share a mixture of gravitas and derangement, sarcasm and lyricism, comic danger and dangerous comedy that makes them reliably fascinating — and reliably peculiar. You certainly wouldn’t confuse Johnson’s dialogue with anyone else’s. ‘Such eyes,’ says one of the characters in The Laughing Monsters, with enthusiasm, to the girl he’s about to marry. ‘How did they fit such enormous eyes into your beautiful face? They had to boil your skull to make it flexible to expand the sockets for those beautiful eyes.’
The Laughing Monsters draws, at least in part, on Johnson’s experiences as a magazine journalist in Africa in the 1990s. It follows Roland Nair, a Danish-American working as a spook for Nato, as he arrives in Sierra Leone to keep tabs on his old comrade-in-arms, a Congolese soldier of fortune called Michael Adriko. But Nair is deeply unreliable, as a narrator and as a person: not only is he a drunk with a penchant for underage prostitutes and a dodgy plan to sell out his employers, he’s also fatally suggestible to Adriko’s charismatic schemes, which include flogging a lump of fake uranium to Mossad, eloping with the daughter of a US military commander and retiring to a beach somewhere to start a private army.
There are points being made in The Laughing Monsters about the cynicism and paranoia of Western involvement in Africa (‘Oh my goodness, Nair,’ says Adriko at one point, ‘you just tickle them in their terrorism bone and they ejaculate all kinds of money’), but what really fascinates Johnson is the quixotic comedy of despair as everyone’s fine plans inevitably unravel. The book starts out as a mordant spy novel, full of Bond-like gadgets, cryptic intelligence protocols and strange meetings in bars. It develops into a sequence of rambling updates from a road trip without end, as Nair and Adriko’s ventures collapse and they straggle bickering from country to country. The result can be tryingly inconsequential, but you keep reading for the strange texture of Johnson’s prose, balanced somewhere on a mysterious axis between comedy, reportage and unsettling lucid dream. ‘We had a close-up view of the highway heading north,’ reports Nair, taking off from Sierra Leone, ‘and one last snapshot of Freetown: an accident on the road — a farmer talking with both hands, a twitching bloody goat at his feet, a car with all four doors open, a sign stuck inside its rear window — SPLENDID DRIVING SCHOOL.’
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