Things Fall Apart

The first time I read The Laughing Monsters, I found it easy to love line by line—Denis Johnson’s prose, as always, is incandescent—but as scenes and chapters piled up I struggled to sustain a sense, however provisional, of what it was actually about, beyond the obvious: that the narrator is a corrupt intelligence operative named Roland Nair who has returned to Sierra Leone after eleven years’ absence to hook up with an old friend and try to make some money, as they did once before. There’s a lot of setup and backstory, several plots (that is, conspiracies) running alongside one another, and many characters who may not be what or who they seem. I felt as though the book spent its first 150 pages revving its engine and its back 80 driving headlong into walls and over cliffs. But I could not shake the feeling that I was missing something, so I revisited Johnson’s Africa reporting in his nonfiction collection Seek (a hodgepodge book, deeply revelatory and out of print) and some of his earlier fiction. I carried his collected poems around with me and read his verse play Soul of a Whore. I found an old New York magazine profile in which he is unexpectedly candid with his interlocutor: “What I write about is really the dilemma of living in a fallen world, and asking: Why is it like this if there’s supposed to be a God?” At this point I felt ready, indeed driven, to approach the novel a second time.

The Laughing Monsters is not, as the jacket copy might imply, a caper in the vein of his Playboy-serialized noir Nobody Move. Rather, it is one of his damnation novels, a commanding anthropology of hell that further extends and complicates the work begun in Angels and continued in The Stars at Noon, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, the novel-in-stories Jesus’ Son, and—unlikeliest of all—the campus satire The Name of the World.

Nair is a captain in the Danish army, though he’s half American, travels on a US passport, and works for the NIIA (NATO Intelligence Interoperability Architecture). He’s in his late thirties, which means that his career coincides almost exactly with the post-9/11 fever dream that was (and is) the global war on terror.

(At this point in the review I had hoped to hoist the NIIA by its presumably jargon-laden petard by quoting its own mission statement, but it turns out that as of this writing multiple links on the NIIA branch of the NATO website are failing to load, which perhaps corroborates Nair’s view of the global intelligence community as constitutionally dysfunctional: incapable of keeping anyone safe from anything, valuable only insofar as it blindly hemorrhages cash and opportunity.)

Nair has contrived to get himself sent to Sierra Leone on assignment, but his real plan is to sell access to the NIIA’s network to the Chinese via an intermediary named Hamid, who may or may not have ties to international terror networks. Nair knows that after he makes this deal he’s going to be an outlaw wanted for treason and espionage anywhere that Western armies go, assuming of course that anyone notices he’s committed a crime, which they might well not. In a world where Facebook has better tech support than NATO, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Nair will be able to have his cake and sell it to the Chinese more than once. Nair’s official assignment, by the way, is to track down a man named Michael Adriko—the previously mentioned old friend—who is working a scam of his own that, by comparison, makes Nair’s plan sound downright sane.

Adriko, roughly Nair’s age, is Ugandan. His people prospered during Idi Amin’s rule, only to suffer terrible reprisals after he fled. Adriko claims to have gone to officer school in the Ugandan army, where he received special training from “Israeli agents—from the Duvdevan unit, he sometimes says, other times he says the Mossad.” Adriko and Nair met when NATO went into Africa after 9/11 to establish the intelligence infrastructure (secure communication centers, informant networks, fiber-optic cable lines) that Nair, in the present action, is seeking to exploit.

The duo spent the mid-aughts in Afghanistan, with Adriko working as Nair’s bodyguard. Later Adriko became a Special Forces attaché to the US military, traveling among bases and training “internationals” in how to respond to—as well as how to employ—the “terrorist tactics” he may or may not have learned from the Mossad. All this in pursuit of a promised official position in the army and, much more important, US citizenship.

Nair and Adriko squabble like brothers, and can even pass for brothers: “Michael’s father had Arab blood apparent in his features, and so Michael—well, there’s a dash of cream in the coffee, invisible to me, but obvious to his fellow Africans. Sometimes he introduced me to them as his brother. As far as I could tell, he was never disbelieved.” And yet brotherhood has not meant equality, in Africa or outside it, in the so-called “first world.” A comparison of Nair’s and Adriko’s clothing is instructive here, and poignantly synecdochic. On base, Adriko wears a uniform with sergeant’s hash marks, though his real role has no title (or job security), while Nair, his double and inversion, holds a sinecure captain’s rank in the Army of Denmark but works for an international intelligence agency and wears whatever he feels like wearing. Each is a man without a country, but Nair is rootless by choice (he has two passports and no allegiances), whereas Adriko is truly stateless, a globe-trotting mercenary, half outcast and half refugee, loyal to whoever takes him in.

Collage of Gustave Doré’s 1866 engraving War in Heaven, which appeared in an illustrated edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Having determined that the Americans will never make good on their promises, Adriko seduces his commanding officer’s daughter, a model-hot American black woman named Davidia St. Claire, who has “interrupted her pursuit of a PhD to put in time at the Institute for Policy Studies, and . . . interrupted all of that for Michael Adriko.” The lovers get engaged and go AWOL, the plan being to hook up with Nair; get the three of them to the village where Adriko believes his tribe has regathered; stay one step ahead of Davidia’s presumably very pissed-off dad, who commands the Colorado US Tenth Special Forces Group; and somewhere along the way make a mint selling uranium to some thugs Adriko believes to be working for—wait for it—the Mossad.

Why would the Mossad want enriched uranium? To make sure Islamist terrorists don’t get it. And why would they use local thugs, i.e., Islamist terrorists, to make the buy? To keep the black market from knowing that they’ve infiltrated it. And how does Adriko know that the Mossad is the real buyer? He doesn’t—or rather, he just does, for Adriko is a man whose “truth lives only in the myth. In the facts and the details, it dies.”

The above covers roughly the first third of the book, and I’ve tried to convey it in its hectic richness without spoiling too many of the manifold batshit surprises in store in a world where “information was an onion, to be peeled back in layers.”

What ensues is at once a massive crack-up and a stunningly choreographed pas de deux—which is to say, a bromance. Adriko and Nair lie to each other and themselves—and to Davidia—constantly, bright burning lies like Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels. They’re also both going insane. Adriko is having increasingly vivid night terrors that he believes are animistic visions. He thinks he’s gaining mystical power as he makes his way back to his homeland. Nair thinks Adriko’s visions are a side effect of taking the wrong brand of malaria medicine, but he himself is a volatile alcoholic, prone to blackouts, cowardice, and fits. Despite the love of a good woman back home—devoted enough to him to conspire in his espionage, and also to e-mail him pics of her tits—the first thing Nair does in Africa is go on a whoring spree. He likes them black, young, and without enough English to understand the terrible things he says to them in bed. This doesn’t stop him from falling into a sloppy, sentimental, dangerous infatuation with Davidia, who for her part is hardly some hapless dusky siren out of central casting, unless maybe—and maybe this is just the novel’s infectious paranoia talking—her part was cast in Langley rather than in Hollywood, and dusky sirenhood is the very point.

The Laughing Monsters is a road-movie buddy comedy set in hell, a place where “before too long the soul grows tired and stops feeling . . . and then man becomes the devil.” It’s a contemporary Heart of Darkness with Marlow missing, the harlequin narrating, and literally everyone else as the Belgians. It doesn’t matter, finally, whether the men holding the guns are NATO, Mossad, Lord’s Resistance Army, Chinese industrialists, US Special Forces, corporate mining interests, mineral pirates, Islamist terror cells, or good old-fashioned thugs. The miasma is what matters: endless violence, exploitation, suffering, environmental devastation, self-refreshing chaos, and always, always money to be made.

For Johnson, still grappling with the “dilemma of living in a fallen world,” goodness is not merely the path to salvation, but may constitute salvation itself. To refuse the good is therefore to refuse the soul (or, as above, exhaust and numb it), which multiplies the tragedy of the world’s fallenness by the horror of willed evil. Here’s Roland Nair’s confession: “I’ve come back because I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart. Michael only makes my excuse for returning.” That last part is a lie—Nair and Adriko need each other desperately; they’re each the only true love the other has ever known. But the rest of Nair’s statement is accurate, and contains within its few words (and its nod to Achebe, who was nodding to Yeats) the whole scope of their wasted lives and the world they’ve helped desecrate and in which they will live those lives out, as if serving prison terms, though they believe themselves wild and free. This is the ultimate truth or—if you can stomach such a bitter word—the moral of Denis Johnson’s hermetic, exhilarating, visionary nightmare of a book.

Justin Taylor’s most recent book is the story collection Flings (Harper, 2014).