If I had the text of Denis Johnson’s new novel, The Laughing Monsters, in searchable format, I might confirm my guess about which telling words show up most often: my money is on truth and liar. Followed closely, in third place, by friend. Or maybe dark. Or camouflage. In Johnson’s world, all of them are inextricably, and uneasily, bound.
In this terse, elliptical literary thriller – so classified by the author himself – Johnson returns to the territory expansively and devastatingly explored in his 2007 National Book Award winner, "Tree of Smoke": the lies men tell, and their usually exorbitant cost. The overt price is paid in lives, when the professionally underhanded are employed by security services to trade in vital information. The more insidious bill is presented to the soul. The story of Roland Nair, a classic thrill junkie whose loyalties (to America, Denmark, NATO, and more than one woman) are in dangerous flux, is on one level about intel. Gathering it, guarding it, buying and selling it: the latest in technological adventure. On another level – and there’s always an unlit basement in the works of Denis Johnson, one of the most astute commentators on corruption in general, putatively upstanding America’s two-faced brand of it in particular – it is about how shockingly easy it is to hide whole chunks of one’s character. Those would be the very darkest parts. There are no unalloyed heroes in his writings. Though at first it seems offhand detail, a bit of character color, the fact that his protagonists often engage in misogynistic behavior is not unimportant. It is a direct hit on the idea that what we do is far more important than what we say.
What we say is rarely to be trusted. Or so narrator Nair discovers, and he himself manifests, when he returns to Africa on a mission to inform on an old friend and colleague who has gone AWOL from a special forces unit in Congo. (An event identifies the year as 2012, though it is otherwise unnamed.) Michael Andriko is an operative who was trained in the US, but it is suggested he also spent some loyalty on Mossad as well as on Kuwait, since in the line of work he shares with his pursuer/friend, loyalty is like a paycheck, it comes and it goes. A decade earlier he worked undercover in Afghanistan, where he saved Nair’s life. Not that that necessarily means anything. These men, whose most essential training consists of learning to mistrust anyone and everyone, move fluidly across all borders, including those of morality. They swim through a subterranean network that exists far beneath the surface upon which the rest of us float, unknowing – a sort of cave-diving both exhilarating and perilous.
The men journey together and separately from Sierra Leone to the mountainous region between Uganda and Congo – Adriko’s homeland, in common with Idi Amin Dada – variously doubting each other, needing each other, doing nefarious business together, and contemplating betrayals. On Nair’s part, this last includes the personal kind, a more than friendly interest in his friend’s beautiful American fiancée.
The leanness of the novel is one of its gratifications: Johnson, who is also a poet, has an almost freakish ability to write in abbreviations that are at once casually suggestive and as specific as an exit wound. Not just red jogging shoes worn with yellow socks: they are clean red jogging shoes. The background music of the book is drinking, voluptuously rendered – Johnson admits to once being an alcoholic, and his father worked for the State Department, so the author comes by his context honestly. His writing skill is all his own. The way he wields the many carefully controlled digressions that at first seem no more than the literary equivalent of shading for three-dimensional effect is a case in point. He permits himself no extraneity or self-indulgence. Even the substance of a Guinness commercial on TV, given the better part of a paragraph, will prove central to the novel’s essential meaning. They were never digressions at all. Exegesis of this packed work could easily keep a graduate English class busy for half a term.
Still, "The Laughing Monsters" yields an almost molecular pleasure in the sense that we are encountering places and people so convincingly oddball it seems they couldn’t be made up by a writer. Could they? The narrator has the kind of skewed sensibility that causes him to observe in an email the fact that he is seated at a table eating chicken while live chickens wander around his feet. Immersing us in an alternative world possessing such clarity it swiftly sidelines our own, Johnson exemplifies a prime reason we read at all in the first place. (His short story collection, "Jesus's Son," was for many a life-changing book.) In the new novel he continues to refine a virtuoso ability to capture, for one thing, the alienness of foreign lands. (A Johnsonian signature is the use of dislocating brand names that simultaneously lend authenticity and inject irony: Good Life butter biscuits, consumed on a decrepit bus populated with those who enjoy anything but a good life; Splendid Driving School, which seems to specialize in idiotic accidents; the National Pride Suites, no further comment needed; the Happy Mountains of Adriko’s warlike clan, ditto.) By extension he alludes to a more profound thematic alienation, the fact that these men are foreigners in the foreign land of their own integrity.
By choosing first-person narration, Johnson chooses what feels like the voice of truth: most of us don’t bother to fabricate artistic lies for an audience of one. But one character’s pointed question – “How can I believe anything you say, when you’re a liar?” – becomes the novel’s sardonic question to all. Searching for the answer takes one to the vertiginous place he calls “the abyss.” There, “Many people keep watch. Nobody sees.... NATO, the UN, the UK, the US – poker-faced, soft-spoken bureaucratic pandemonium. They’re mad, they’re blind, they’re heedless, and not one of them cares, not one of them.” He describes not just the black depths of international politics. This is the abyss of human nature.
Only occasionally does a clean bright light illuminate Johnson’s real goal: not only a well-crafted genre thriller but a muscular protest against nationalist criminality on the global stage. Such a light falls on one explanatory statement. “Since nine-eleven, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. An industry. A lucrative one.” In a book that turns upon the actions of professional liars, alas, truer words were never spoken.