After publishing nearly 20 books, including novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and plays, Denis Johnson doesn’t get nearly the recognition he deserves for the sheer diversity of his work. He was bestowed with a National Book Award in 2007 for what many called “his big book,” Tree Of Smoke, a sprawling imagistic contribution to the literature of Vietnam. He’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, most recently for his 2011 novella Train Dreams, an earthy, poetry-laden ode to a much different America, this time concerning the particular tribulations of day laborer Robert Granier in 19th-century Idaho. It is a small book that smolders, nearly fragrant with the wood smoke it memorably describes.
Most of all, Johnson is the author of Jesus’ Son, a slim volume of stories (episodes, really) concerning the now legendary Fuckhead, a 20th-century Dostoyevskian angelic idiot befuddled by the goings on of the day-to-day world, regardless of his current state of intoxication. After its publication, all of Johnson’s early books seemed to be reevaluated in the long shadow it cast. Earlier books as Angels or Resuscitation Of A Hanged Man were “by the author of Jesus’ Son” even though they preceded it by a almost decade.
But there are more books by Johnson that buck the Fuckhead mold than do not (and that doesn’t even include his plays, poetry, or reportage). The futuristic Fiskadoro, the politically astute The Stars At Noon, the under-appreciated campus novella The Name Of The World, the northern California pot-crop criminal romp Already Dead, or the pulp noir Nobody Move (originally serialized in Playboy) seem written either by a half-dozen writers, or the wildly versatile changeling poet that Denis Johnson just happens to be, Jesus’ Son be damned.
Readers who have followed him through every permutation and experiment may not be surprised that Johnson’s latest novel, The Laughing Monsters, is being marketed as “a post-9/11 literary spy thriller.” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. What the novel does concern itself with is one Roland Nair, a slippery guy whose identity is as much of a secret during his encounters in Africa as it is while reading his narrative. Nair is not so much the classic unreliable narrator, as he happens to be unreliable and also the book’s narrator. He is a drunk. He is Danish, yet tangled up with NATO and the CIA and the NIIA. (The novel is crowded with so many bureaucratic acronyms, some covert conversations wouldn’t seem out of place in the war room from Dr. Strangelove.) He is in love with an American, Tina Harrington (who works for the CIA, perhaps, by way of Denmark, maybe), to whom much of the narrative is addressed, especially in the novel’s second half, which adopts a diary format as circumstances find Nair’s supplies reduced to the nub of a No. 2 pencil.
On its surface, The Laughing Monsters asks the reader to guess at what Nair is truly after: Who is the real spy? Why is Nair actually trailing the mad African Michael Adriko as he treks across the continent to marry his beloved Davidia St. Claire—another American for whom Nair appears to be falling (and who might also work for the CIA, or the USSOCOM, or AFRICOM, or no one in particular). Is he is in cahoots with his Ugandan friend and eager to sell off a quantity of highly enriched uranium for a handsome profit, or was he hired by the Nigerian Institute Of International Affairs (the aforementioned NIIA) to stop Adriko from doing exactly that? Nair begins to believe both British Military Intelligence and Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, are following him, while Davidia’s devotion to Adriko becomes as unlikely as her presence in Africa. Then, she disappears.
This novel has elicited comparisons to the work of Graham Greene, an easy enough touchstone when dealing with literary intrigue and globetrotting. But, if forced to align The Laughing Monsters with a body of work that precedes his own, Johnson’s novel might best be appreciated as the type of inquiry Paul Bowles returned to again and again in his novels. Like Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, The Spider’s House, or Let It Come Down, The Laughing Monsters appears to be exploring what makes people belong anywhere, what sacrifices it takes to shed where they’re from, and how to go unnoticed in a place they might not be entirely welcome.
The world has gotten a lot smaller since Bowles shuttled himself off to Tangier to smoke hashish and wonder about the riddle of permanent expatriation. As Roland Nair makes his way to East Africa, convinced that hidden somewhere on his person is a GPS device to alert a drone, he is reminded by a prisoner he meets that no one can “drop out of contact… Nobody who tries it can last very long… Nobody ever lasts.” At one point, Nair recalls the British missionary James Hannington whose religion compelled him to journey into East Africa, only to confront resistance and eventual violent death. Nair identifies with the missionary, imagining how he “might have stood up to his buttocks in this sludge and wept, and heard the mountains laughing.” Johnson seems to be asking, in this spy thriller, just whose eye is upon us and as we go about claiming lands, forging passports, and following trails of money into dark alleys. What is actually watching just might be the immovable earth as it guffaws eternally at our expense, awaiting another flock of beings to tiptoe across its landscape, as if we’ll ever be anything but invisible to each other forever.