12 Winters Blog

Chaos and Despair: Denis Johnson’s “The Laughing Monsters”

Posted in September 2015 by Ted Morrissey on September 21, 2015

Denis Johnson has called his novel The Laughing Monsters a “literary thriller,” as it chronicles the chaotic odyssey of a pair of rogue intelligence operatives from Freetown, Sierra Leone, to the ambiguous border area of Uganda and the DR Congo. After a couple of careful readings, I half-agree with the author. I don’t find the book the page-turning ride that thriller suggests, but my appreciation of the book and what Johnson has achieved in its writing definitely waxed as I re-read it in preparation for this review—and that, I believe, is the acid-test definition of literary.

The Laughing Monsters: A Novel, by Denis Johnson. FSG, 2014, 228 pages.

The Laughing Monsters: A Novel, by Denis Johnson. FSG, 2014, 228 pages.

A story sometimes spends years incubating in Johnson’s imagination before he starts writing it, he says, and my suspicion is that The Laughing Monsters had an especially long incubation. For one, in its characters and plot he returns to familiar territory, even familial territory. The first-person narrator Roland Nair, a captain in the Danish military, works for NATO intelligence, mainly as a tech/communications expert, and he’s traveled to Sierra Leone to meet his long-time friend Michael Adriko, a Congolese who has been trained as a professional soldier and has served in various armies, including as an instructor to the American Green Berets. The world of intelligence gathering and covert operations is reminiscent of Johnson’s 2007 novel Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award. For both, he drew from his childhood experiences growing up the son of a father in the U.S. State Department who regularly mixed with diplomats, military personnel, and agents of the CIA and FBI.

But the literary influences on Johnson’s writing of The Laughing Monsters are perhaps even more significant, and in particular one can see shades of Malcolm Lowry’s classic Under the Volcano (1947), which Johnson cited as being especially influential on his writing in a Bookworm radio interview in 1992. In terms of their similarities, one is that Volcano’s central character, Geoffrey Firmin, spends the entire novel in an alcohol-induced fog, while Johnson’s Nair forces brief periods of sobreity on himself but otherwise is ingesting whatever sort of alcohol he can get his hands on, from vodka shots in plastic pouches to the homebrew of Congolese herdsmen. What is more, Under the Volcano focuses on a love triangle between Firman, his estranged wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh; and Johnson introduces into his narrative mix the beautiful and bright Davidia St. Claire, an American graduate student who is Adriko’s fiancée and also the daughter of Colonel Marcus St. Claire, the garrison commander at Fort Carson and Adriko’s commanding officer—to which news Nair is left speechless other than to repeat “Oh my lord” three times.

Lowry’s title refers to the volcanoes Popocatepeti and Iztaccihuatl that overshadow the small Mexican town where Firmin’s drama unfolds, and they seem to symbolize the doom that hangs over the characters, the futility of their trying to set their lives aright. The Laughing Monsters, meanwhile, is the nickname of the mountains where Michael Adriko’s clan lives—or at least where they lived when he was a boy, before being dislocated—and they serve as a sort of Ithacan objective in that he wants his marriage to Davidia to take place there, with Nair acting as witness and best man. The Laughing Monsters are central to the symbolic structure of Johnson’s novel. Akin to Lowry’s volcanoes, the mountains represent the futility of trying to Westernize Africa. Nair informs us that Adriko calls “the hills of his childhood, the Happy Mountains,” but the Christian missionary James Harrington (executed by King Mwanga II of Buganda by being speared to death in 1885) called them “the Laughing Monsters” in “frustration and disgust.”

Adriko, a trained killer, is also a laughing monster of a kind. Early in the novel, Nair describes his friend as “[a]lways laughing, never finished talking. A hefty, muscular frame, but with angular grace. You know what I mean: not a thug. Still—lethal.” And like so much in the novel, Nair’s relationship with Adriko is constantly shifting between opposite poles. At times Nair is dependent on him for protection in the dangerous world they’re navigating, and at other times he’s cautious of him as just another dangerous element.

And here is where the beauty of Johnson’s novel lies. He has meticulously constructed a narrative of dualities where nothing is at it seems for long, and the only fact that one can count on is that each fact will soon wear a different color. These shifting uncertainties are everywhere in the book and perhaps best represented by Nair and Adriko’s discussion as to Michael’s current military status. Adriko says, “Officially I’ve deserted, but in truth I’m returning to the loyalty I ran away from. What is desertion? Desertion is a coin. You turn it over, and it’s loyalty”—a concept whose truth Nair easily accepts.

Michael’s plan to marry Davidia (and Nair’s plan to steal her for his own before the wedding) drives the plot forward, as do Nair’s and Adriko’s schemes for getting rich in Africa—a “land of chaos, despair,” as Nair calls it. The friends mainly keep each other in the dark, however, while somehow also attempting to work together to their mutual benefit. To try to convince Nair that he should support his scheme, which involves purloined uranium, Adriko paints a ravaged-Africa version of the American Dream: “You’ll live like a king. A compound by the beach. Fifty men with AKs to guard you. The villagers will 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.”

Johnson stylizes Adriko as a Mephistophelean magician who tempts what should be a Faustian Nair—but the book’s ultimate laugh is that Nair is a cog in a machine which has already conjured its own version of hell that is far darker than any that mere mythology can construct.

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