Denis Johnson’s previous novel, Nobody Move (2009), was a tepid, forgettable work of “noir” crime fiction. Even so, perhaps what made this novel so disappointing was not that it was formulaic or derivative, but that finally it failed to be as “noir” as Johnson’s own non-genre fiction, which habitually casts human endeavors in the darkest light without resorting to contrived plot machinations. Johnson’s fiction generally features morally compromised protagonists, or protagonists who find themselves in morally ambiguous circumstances, circumstances that at any moment might erupt into violence, that imperfectly conceal implicit danger, both physical and existential.
If Nobody Move too explicitly literalizes the violence and moral confusion inherent in Johnson’s fiction by embodying them in a genre in which such elements are simply conventions, Johnson’s best work conveys a sense of unease or dread that the dangers lurking beneath the surface will become manifestly real, not the assumption they will become real as part of the plot that the genre conventions require. These books, in fact, are finally more about character and atmosphere than plot, even though they are certainly punctuated by episodes of intensified narrative action. Johnson’s most well known and arguably best book, Jesus’ Son, is a collection of stories linked through their narrator, whose role telling several eventful stories is finally secondary to the character portrait of himself that emerges, not least from the manner of his telling, which can be quite lyrical. The best of the novels, such as Angels and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, similarly emphasize character even while relating stories that also include much consequential and often dramatic action.
Although it cannot be called one of Johnson’s best novels, The Laughing Monsters is a return to the strategies employed in his most characteristic work. In relating his adventures (misadventures, more accurately), the novel’s morally dubious protagonist, who is vaguely engaged in Intelligence work, evokes an atmosphere of equal parts menace and slapstick comedy and reveals himself to be in his own sort of existential crisis. Perhaps it could loosely be called a spy novel, but The Laughing Monsters is more of a piece with Johnson’s earlier, geopolitically-themed novels The Stars at Noon and Tree of Smoke. Each of these novels is set during a period of American military involvement — the first Nicaragua, the second Vietnam, and in The Laughing Monsters, the post 9/11 “war on terror” — and depicts a protagonist ultimately witnessing the damage and degradation these interventions inflict, on him/herself, on the countries targeted, and ultimately on the United States as well. Tree of Smoke, a 700-page saga of the Vietnam War and its immediate aftermath, is the most elaborately developed of these novels, but in some ways both The Stars at Noon and The Laughing Monsters in their narrower scope more effectively evoke the palpable sense of corruption and looming defeat that emanate from the misguided enterprises portrayed.
The Laughing Monsters is narrated by Roland Nair, a man of murky loyalties who may be an Intelligence operative (via NATO) or a rogue agent, or both, and who travels on a Danish passport but is (probably) American. Nair is in Africa to meet up with Michael Adriko, an old friend/co-conspirator with whom Nair is going to embark on a new money-making scheme or on whom he is going to report, or both. Adriko has a new fiancé in tow (an American woman), and the narrative leads Nair into dangerous territory, both literally as he finds himself in a remote African village where the constraints of law have entirely broken down (helped along by American foreign policy), and figuratively when he discovers Adriko’s scheme involves the sale of Uranium and when he discovers himself falling in love with Adriko’s fiancé. The illegal transaction and the love affair fail, but at the end of the novel Nair reasserts his solidarity with Adriko, seemingly no longer willing to participate in the dirty business assigned to him by the powers that be in charge of the “global” war on terror.
The African setting invites comparison with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and indeed not only Johnson’s novels that explore American colonialist ventures but his fiction in general, depicting characters confronting the corruptions and existential horrors of the world and forced to accommodate themselves to it, sometimes successfully but most often not, seems indebted to the vision of human folly found in Conrad’s work. Those characters in Conrad’s fiction who believe themselves in control of their own fates only to be painfully disabused of the notion certainly parallel the narrative dilemmas faced by Roland Nair and Tree of Smoke’s Skip Sands as well. Johnson’s “international” novels additionally recall Graham Greene, and not just in their examination of the clash between indigenous cultures and Western political expediencies. Johnson’s fiction also resembles Greene’s in its expression of an inherently religious sensibility, both explicitly through characters representing religion (in The Laughing Monsters a Buddhist priest, for example) and implicitly through the possibility of something like salvation or redemption that Johnson’s narratives offer his protagonists.
In their encounters with what can finally only be called evil, both the evil manifested in the world and their own capacity to accept or even conspire with that evil, Johnson’s characters are usually given a chance at redemption. In Tree of Smoke, Skip Sands is unable to withstand the moral disillusionment he undergoes as a consequence of his experience during the Vietnam era. The Laughing Monster’s Roland Nair, on the other hand, is one of the most perspicuous examples of a Johnson protagonist who achieves redemption of sorts, or at least emerges from his nearly calamitous experience with an altered perspective that leads him to affirm his friendship with Adriko even as he also risks prison or worse through his outright defiance of American Intelligence. Nair flees with rather than betraying Adriko to save himself: “We don’t have to put down roots. Maybe we’ll keep moving. Michael and I both liked Uganda. Why not? The climate’s pleasant.” Although it will now be Nair’s fate to “keep moving,” he seems at the end of the novel to accept that fate, which surely will require of him no more moral compromise than his part in guarding the world from terrorism has required, and in considering a return to Uganda he is embracing the African heart of darkness as the less debased alternative.
While The Laughing Monsters thus may be especially describable in its narrative structure as a kind of spiritual allegory, at its core most of Johnson’s fiction depicts an underlying allegorical conflict between human recognition of the morally good and the human inclination to negate that recognition by making poor moral choices, usually in explicitly religious language and iconography. By now, in fact, this narrative mode is so familiar as a core feature of Denis Johnson’s books that it has become something of a formula. Tree of Smoke attempts to expand the formula by uniting it with a historical saga that examines American sins on a larger scale, although arguably this expansion results primarily in bloat. Nobody Move settles entirely for formula, as Johnson presumably finds the crime novel a suitable vehicle for invoking the moral corruption within the context of which his stories otherwise must proceed. The Laughing Monsters perhaps surprises somewhat in granting its protagonist such a clear opportunity for grace, but Roland Nair seems such a recognizable Johnson character that the predominant experience of reading the novel is the expectation that he is certainly heading for his moment of reckoning.
The Laughing Monsters is not an altogether tedious read. Its origins in Johnson’s own reporting on the situation in Africa gives its rendering of character and setting a tacit authenticity. The plot has its moments of high tension, and the narration by Nair succeeds in immersing us in the story. The prose Nair employs is nimble enough to accomplish these larger purposes, although there are few of the kind of stylistic flourishes for which Johnson became much admired in his earlier books. In The Laughing Monsters Johnson seems content to produce an “entertainment” of the kind Graham Greene claimed to periodically write, a novel that engages the author’s characteristic themes, but in a manner that seems safely familiar.