Denis Johnson’s new book The Laughing Monsters is a lean spy novel set in West Africa. It’s a tale of known unknowns, a book that’s briefer, more singular, and in some ways less mysterious than Johnson’s last book about espionage, Tree of Smoke. The story follows Roland Nair, a freelance spy who arrives in Freetown, Sierra Leone on a mission from NATO that’s never fully explained. Nair’s paranoia and his disdain for West Africa are on full display, but few other details about him are apparent. His outward contempt, however, belies the allure that the region holds for him. He doesn’t want to be here—or so he says—but there’s no place he’d rather be. As another operative tells Nair, “[W]e’re not here for simplicity, Roland. We’re after adventure. It’s good for the soul and the mind and the bank balance,” and this much is true. Nair may not be happy or comfortable, but he’s having the time of his life.
As a protagonist, Nair is neither likeable nor reliable. Though his ostensible goal is finding and tracking fellow spy Michael Adriko, his real purpose in West Africa is to sell stolen information about the US military to the Russians—for the thrill as much as the money. Nair insults Africans at almost every opportunity. He types a tender email to his wife just moments before picking up a prostitute outside his hotel. The Laughing Monsters isn’t merely the story of an unreliable antihero. If the straight narrative is fragmented by Nair’s willingness to lie and delude himself, it’s further broken by the fact that nearly every other character is also a liar.
When Nair catches up with his quarry, Michael introduces Nair to his fiancée, Davidia St. Claire, a politically connected grad student from the US. Michael brags about his involvement with various militaries and, when asked about his plan, spins a story of how he and Nair can become warlords. “More,” he says, “will be revealed.” Nair, meanwhile, is convinced they’re headed to Congo to die.
Eventually, the two friends end up in Uganda, in Michael Adriko’s home village, where—because this is a Denis Johnson novel—they encounter God. Much of Johnson’s work is characterized by a concern with spirituality and the ineffable, and it shares a lot with Flannery O’Connor’s writing in that grace is hardly something gentle or wholly benign. The god of The Laughing Monsters, however, is self-anointed, an elderly queen who claims to control the water of the village’s poisoned river. “I am El Olam,” she declares, “the Everlasting God!” She lacks both the spirituality of Johnson’s other works and the mystery of every other aspect of the novel. Her tangible evil serves the very obvious purpose of making her powerful for her own gain. But here in his home, Michael betrays his true intentions: he wants to save his people from superstition.
The book’s action moves ever forward, even as the dialogue twists and doubles back on itself. By the end, you have to conclude that the story isn’t about characters’ words—or even their actions—but about their relationships with one another. It’s tempting to compare The Laughing Monsters to other spy novels, or Nair to one of Nabokov’s unreliable narrators. A more apt comparison, however, might be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, another great story about love and deception. In ways no one could ever guess from reading half the book, The Laughing Monsters is a story about friendship. Nair and Michael’s love for one another is wholly platonic, but their relationship may be Johnson’s most fatal romance yet. Near the end of the novel, Nair confesses to Michael, “I tried to steal your girl,” meaning Davidia, by now long gone. Michael’s reply is revealing: “I consider it a compliment.”
More, as Michael Adriko has promised, is revealed, but the details only serve to broaden the questions of the novel rather than answer them. There’s so much murk and misdirection in The Laughing Monster that somewhere beyond its midpoint it achieves a Powell-Pressburger level of mania. If you’re expecting the book to end like your typical spy thriller, you’ll be disappointed when the story fails to fully resolve. But The Laughing Monsters is neither a thriller nor a stale rumination on the knowability of truth. Rather, it is a story of how reality is experienced. Johnson doesn’t try to reassimilate the light that is refracted by individual experience. He simply writes about the prism. For all its mystery and questioning, The Laughing Monster is ultimately a materialist document. You have to wonder if Johnson has finally lost faith in his Higher Power.