Henry Martin 

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By henrymartinhm, Sep 16 2015 08:37PM

It is rare that when I have finished a book I still don’t know what to make of it. Denis Johnson’s 'The Laughing Monsters' (Harvill Secker) is one such rarity.

I had never read any of Johnson’s work before; when I first spotted 'The Laughing Monsters' in a bookshop (and then Hackney Library) I was drawn to the title and to the cover photograph which I knew to be by the Irish photographer Richard Moss.

However, there all confidence and comfort in my choice ends.

The Laughing Monsters – a book in four parts – is, on the surface, a book about two renegade NATO/UN/CIA/MILITARY friends who strike out alone to wheel and deal contraband in Sierra Leone, Uganda and the DR Congo. The two are old friends, but not necessarily faithful ones. The first, Nair (Dutch), is sent to spy on the second, Adriko (Ugandan). Because the ensuing story is told from Nair’s perspective and he spends half the book high on alcohol (to call him drunk would be putting it mildly) what we get is a fragmented, distressing and piece-meal account of a journey into a heart of darkness that goes terribly awry.

To try and talk about plot in 'The Laughing Monsters' would be a fool's errand. The author is not fully committed to mapping a plot out and as such, being plot-light the action feels all the more vulnerable and the stakes for each character even more precarious. As such, everything in this book is uncertain – except the writing, which is totally confident in the uncertainty it creates. Who is Nair? Who is Adriko? Who is crossing whom? The book starts off a spy novel - full of the tropes of the genre – but half way through it has the reason vacuumed out of it to become one person’s confused travelogue of events – increasingly grotesque and surreal. What does this mean? Why the sudden shift in tone and purpose?

I’m still not sure why Johnson dispenses with the narrative he originally sets up, and instead takes the reader on a confused journey leap-frogging across Africa. For sure, some of the images and scenes he describes are vivid – the African Queen called La Dolce Vita, sitting on a throne between two trees asking for villagers to offer her a sacrifice – a woman killed by reckless driving as she walks miles with a basket on her head. But do vivid images make a portrait of the continent – or the protagonist? And is Johnson’s excellent – really excellent – smart – sharp – twisty – dialogue heavy – fresh writing enough to keep everything moving while the world of the characters falls apart? Just about.

As such all the elements of this short novel hang together by a thread – the only problem is, I’m not sure ultimately what picture they are coming together to create. If nothing else, 'The Laughing Gods' will not be a book that I will forget any time soon, which perhaps is a good enough achievement in light of all the disposable narratives thrown about daily. Nair (or Johnson?) is critical of Africa – of the people populating the country, confusing each other and the ‘natives’ – but Nair is out not to help, as he should be doing. Instead he is out to exploit in a typical Western self-interested way.

The title of the Richard Mosse photograph on the cover of the book is 'Men of Good Fortune.' This would have been a more ironic title for a book whose primary characters come out triumphant in the end – but whose invisible supporting cast – the poor – sick – starving – rural villagers remain fortune-free. 'The Laughing Gods' might be the men who end up with money in their pockets leaving destruction in their wake – but Africa is certainly not laughing anytime soon.

I definitely want to read Denis Johnson's other work.


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