At first glance, Denis Johnson’s two most successful and fully realized published works, 1992’s Jesus’ Son and 2007’s National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke, could not be more different. The first is a personally visceral and spaced-out collection of connected stories loosely structured around the narrator’s addiction and recovery, and clocks in at a brisk 160 pages. The second is a sprawling novel of more than 600 pages involving a family’s experience of the Vietnam War, a CIA officer’s obsession with psy ops, and all manner of other weighty elements that Johnson himself might struggle to recall.
His new novel, The Laughing Monsters, is somewhere in between, in its fascination with the world’s entropic progression through history towards a shared and mostly deserved doom, combined with the much more personal disasters that occur in the heart of a man drawn dangerously out of his depth. Although not his most ambitious work, this novel is a wonderful example of Johnson operating in his most readable mode.
Roland Nair is a mid-to-late career spook (“Nobody says spook anymore,” he says) of split Danish and American extraction who steps off a plane in Freetown, Sierra Leone, 11 years after his last visit during the country’s civil war. He is technically on assignment from his handlers at NATO to report on a man with whom he has a shared operational history in various conflict zones, Michael Adriko, an African soldier of fortune who has invited Nair to meet his fiancé, Davidia, and journey with them both to his ancestral homeland for the wedding. In actuality, Adriko is less excited to be married than he is to fleece whatever intelligence agency is willing to pay for some bogus information about a crash-landed load of Russian enriched uranium. As Nair, narrating what he would like to write in one of his regularly scheduled encrypted reports, tells us: “And while you, my superiors, may think I’ve come to join him in Africa because you dispatched me here, you’re mistaken. I’ve come because I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart. Michael only makes my excuse for returning.”
Nair is far from a moral idealist, with his penchant for underage prostitutes and a taste for local distilled spirits to rival that of Malcolm Lowry’s Consul in Under the Volcano. (“There’s a reason they call them spirits. They enter in, they take control, they speak and walk around. Wicked, wicked spirits.”) He is also disillusioned and disloyal to any kind of pro-western ethos or counter-terrorism mission statement—as Adriko drags him deeper and deeper into West Africa and a love triangle with Davidia, Nair’s primary concern is making it back to Freetown in time to sell sensitive American intelligence to the highest bidder.
Given that Johnson has real-life experience with the worst the region has to offer (see his incredible reportage from the Liberian civil war collected in Seek, his only published book of non-fiction), it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for West Africa to appear in his fiction. Besides the fact that the cratered and haunted landscape is the perfect stage on which to reenact his microcosmic vision of the end of the world, Johnson also has plenty of opportunity to play with the poorly translated English that has become one of his touchstones. Says a denim- and flip-flop clad crew member of a rickety charter flight, “I want to warn you of the safety features of this aircraft.” Says a co-conspirator, “I hear the pot saying to the kettle, ‘You are black.’ Do you know that expression?” And, perhaps more to the point, as Nair himself says of one of the girls he pays to sleep with him, “I was glad she didn’t know English. I could say whatever I wanted to her, and I did. Terrible things. All the things you can’t say.”
This facility with rendering a poor facility with English is not just an authorial distraction or a joke (although it is often quite funny); rather, it points towards the vein of absurdity that flows under all of Johnson’s fictive universe and feeds it from below, in which language is just a barely functional tool and the true terror of our immutable silliness threatens to assert itself at any moment. (Jonathan Franzen’s blurb on the back of Tree of Smoke read, “The God I want to believe in has a voice and sense of humor like Denis Johnson’s.”
In Johnson’s center-cannot-hold universe, we see that language, like all of our treasured creations, will eventually fail us when we need it most. For now, though, we might as well use it to create beautiful sentences like these: “The sky was stuffed with thunderheads nearly black. I shut my eyes yet felt aware of the garden at my elbow, the blooms opening as if in time-lapse, the stalks lengthening. Blossoms like dangling red bells, blossoms like tiny white fountains, fuzzy yellow caterpillars on brown twigs, a squad of snails lugging their small shelters up the spears of a plant.”