The Laughing Monsters

  • By Denis Johnson
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 240 pp.
  • Reviewed by A.X. Ahmad
  • December 18, 2014

Stereotypical characters, Cold War tropes, and a sputtering plot conspire to derail this much-anticipated novel.

Genre authors may rarely venture into the literary world, but literary writers are increasingly trying their hand at mysteries and thrillers. Isabel Allende, winner of Chile’s National Literature Prize, recently wrote Ripper, a murder mystery, and John Banville, the Booker Prize winner, writes a noir mystery series under the nudge-nudge, wink-wink pen name of Benjamin Black. The motivation of these literary giants is unclear. Is it a creative urge to transcend borders, or the desire to tap into a lucrative commercial market?

When it came to Denis Johnson’s new novel, billed as a “post 9/11 literary spy thriller,” I didn’t question his reasons. Johnson won the National Book Award in 2007 for Tree of Smoke, which captured the complexity of the Vietnam War, and his 2012 novella, Train Dreams, was meticulously plotted. I was sure he would bring his hypnotic writing and command of narrative to the thriller genre.

The beginning of The Laughing Monsters does not disappoint. Roland Nair, an American with a Danish passport, arrives in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He is there to reconnect with his African friend Adriko, a man with many incarnations as a mercenary, the latest with the Green Berets. The two men once profited from the civil war here, and Nair has now been summoned to participate in…what exactly? It isn’t clear, but the reader is willing to wait.

The novel crackles with energy as Nair negotiates the chaotic Third World mess of Freetown. He heads off into a rundown bazaar and enters a Xerox shop called “Elvis Documents,” which hides a secret NATO communications bunker. It turns out that Nair is not just in Freetown for his own profit, but also works for NIIA. (For those of us not in the know, the acronym stands for “NATO Intelligence Interoperability Architecture.”)

Nothing here is what it seems, and Johnson captures this ambiguity in the tiny details: “It had rained hard…knocking insects out of the sky, and I call these mayflies for convenience, but they seemed half-cockroach as well. Later…when I asked the concierge what sort of creature this was, he said ‘In-seck.’”

Adriko, Nair’s old friend, is a compelling character, “a figure in a two-piece jogging suit of royal purple velour, a large man with a bald, chocolate, bullet-shaped head which he wagged from side to side as he blew his nose loudly and violently into a white hand towel.”

The reunion of the two men is complicated by the presence of Adriko’s fiancée, a gorgeous African-American woman named Davidia St. Clair, to whom Nair is instantly attracted. Adriko is coy about the details of the mission they are about to embark on, but hints at vast amounts of money that will change Nair’s life.

As Adriko tells Nair, “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-year old virgins…” As they head off to Uganda, ostensibly to reconnect with Adriko’s tribe, the stage seems set for an epic adventure.

Then, inexplicably, not much happens. The narrator of the novel, Nair, is essentially passive, yoked to the dynamic Adriko, who refuses to reveal much information. Despite pages of snappy dialogue, Nair ends up stuck in various hotels or held captive. The trio’s original goal is quickly shunted aside. The book feels removed as the final parts are told largely in a series of emails written by Nair.

We also learn very little about him, except that he has an inexplicable attraction to young prostitutes. What promised to be an exciting portrait of an interracial friendship stalls, as well: Nair remains the rational white man, and Adriko plays the role of the emotional and irrational African.

At times, I wondered if the novel was a parody of a thriller. Johnson assembles a picaresque crew, creates murky motives, sets the novel in the Le Carre-like terrain of lawless Africa, then simply refuses to give the reader any of the satisfactions of a thriller: a clear narrative engine and swift pacing.

Ultimately, Johnson’s novel illustrates the danger of trying to write a thriller in the morally ambiguous, complex, post-Cold War world. It simply isn’t enough to have a white man running around some exotic backdrop, with a lot of technical spy jargon thrown in.

The thriller has evolved from its Cold War roots, and writers as varied as Henning Mankell and John Burdett have rooted the thriller in place (Mankell in small-town Sweden, and Burdett in Bangkok) and explored complex social issues using, with integrity, the craft of realistic fiction.

Another interesting fact: The advance review copy clearly billed Johnson’s book as a thriller, but the final hardcover I received a few weeks later simply called it a novel. Perhaps Johnson’s publisher realized that the book lacked a coherent plot and hoped that the change in label would make it acceptable in the literary world.

This change speaks volumes about the divide between the two worlds. Sadly, The Laughing Monsters seems orphaned between them.

A.X. Ahmad is author of the Ranjit Singh thrillers The Caretaker and The Last Taxi Ride.

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