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The Laughing Monsters
By Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
It's funny that the same week I read Denis Johnson's new novel, The Laughing Monsters, I also happened to catch the new movie A Most Wanted Man, which has been (rightly) described by most critics as "based on a minor John LeCarre novel;" because when it starts out, this seems like it's going to be the best way to describe this book too, as a minor one by Johnson in the vein of his last book as well, the ultra-slight crime noir Nobody Move, this time ostensibly a spy thriller but in reality not much more than an extended character study in which not much happens, set in Africa and with the kind of world-weary tone of a typical Graham Greene novel. (The book's title comes from a famous quote by the first white man to travel in Uganda, missionary James Hannington, who found the experience so miserable that he started referring on a regular basis to the local Happy Mountains by this term, which Johnson uses as a metaphor for the entire history of white intervention in African affairs.) And in a way this is a shame, because Johnson's complex, dense and immensely rewarding 2007 Vietnam CIA drama Tree of Smoke continues to be one of the best books I've ever reviewed since opening CCLaP eight years ago, and it's naturally tempting to want to see Johnson output another novel just as thick and amazing; but in a way it's of course perfectly understandable too, in that even the best writers in history usually only have one or two Tree of Smokes in them over the course of their entire careers, and it's unrealistic to expect an author to knock out another one every time they sit down at their computer.
But ultimately the point turns out to be moot anyway; for the more you read The Laughing Monsters, the more complex and fascinating it becomes, and while ultimately not a masterpiece like some of his other works, by its end it is an immensely enjoyable and nastily dark little tale that once again examines the hazy line between good and evil when it comes to the act of undercover intelligence gathering, the same subject of Tree of Smoke but this time transplanted to a post-9/11 American hegemony, an all-powerful "planetary police" that now uses its creepy black-ops powers as a way to thwart all threats to the current world order. Set in a series of unstable African countries, as our protagonist Roland Nair makes his way from the west coast of Sierre Leone to the east coast of South Sudan, at first this seems like it's going to be an expat hangout tale, as Nair reunites with his African civil-war-era compatriot Michael Adriko, hangs out in a series of bars and hotels in Freetown, and slowly becomes convinced to join in on a scam to sell fake uranium to what may or may not be the Israeli secret service. But after Nair reports on his activities in a secret communications room in the basement of a decrepit internet cafe, we start to realize that he's actually there to officially keep tabs on this fake uranium scam, on behalf of what might be the CIA or perhaps is NATO; but then when we see him steal a series of sensitive documents about the locations of such spy centers across Africa, we're led to believe that perhaps he is a double agent, or maybe a mercenary who has grown tired of governments altogether, or even that the entire thing is a triple feint to get him in as a deep, deep undercover agent within a super-secret ring of legitimately dangerous terrorists, and using Adriko's laughably obvious con game with the uranium as a double cover in order to confound everyone involved.
The answers to these questions is what fuels most of the book's plot, so I will allow them to remain surprises to the first-time reader; but what can definitely be revealed is that these plot machinations are simply half of the story Johnson is telling, with the rich descriptions of these deeply flawed characters being just as important a reason to read this book as the three-act storyline itself, as well as Johnson's look at the history of European/American dabbling into African affairs, the futility of such dabbling, and the unending disasters over the last century that such dabbling has created. And so in this, The Laughing Monsters ends up becoming just as complex and fascinating a book as anything else Johnson has written, even if it perhaps doesn't climb to the same heights of an undisputed classic like Tree of Smoke (although in its defense, nor does it even try to). Richly engaging, and a good primer on the recent history of African politics to boot, the book is well worth your time even if you're not naturally a big fan of spy thrillers, and it comes strongly recommended to a general audience today.
Out of 10: 9.2