One of the magical feats of literature is its ability to make you use your imagination.
Black words on a white page can become the most vivid landscapes, the most magnetic characters, the most heart-rending scenes, once our synapses have been set to work. Yet Denis Johnson wants none of that.
In his new work, The Laughing Monsters, the National Book Award-winning author of Tree of Smoke does everything in his power to shut down our senses and our sensibilities. Want to know where you are? You’d be lucky. Want to know who to root for? Not likely. Want to know what the hell’s going on? Guess again. And it’s terrifying.
The Laughing Monsters starts in Sierra Leone, where our narrator, a black-haired Dane called Roland Nair (Nair as in “nadir”? “Ne’er-do’well”?), has just landed on assignment for NIIA, which we’re told stands for Nato Intelligence Interoperability Architecture (it’s a real, if lesser-known organisation, though the first “I” actually stands for “ISR”: “Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance”). That assignment is, or at least appears to be, to establish contact with and report the movements of an old acquaintance of his, Michael Adriko.
Now, who is Michael Adriko? Difficult to say. He’s a large, charismatic man with a shiny bald head, who has been affiliated with both the US military and the Lord’s Resistance Army but who shows allegiance to no one but himself. We know that Adriko and Nair go way back – he’s saved Nair’s life three times, in fact – and he wants Nair to join him in Uganda where he plans to marry his beautiful new American girlfriend, Davidia St Clair, and also flog some fake (or is it?) enriched uranium. This, Nair tells Davidia, is the post-9/11 version of “the old Great Game”, where the fear – and the funds – are limitless.
So far, so intriguing, but Johnson isn’t letting us have it so easy.
For every snippet of juicy information – hints of ever-deeper intelligence operations, covert communications systems, new players (the British: “MI4, or 5, or 6”; Mossad) – he plunges his readers into further confusion. When the uranium scam doesn’t go to plan, Nair, Adriko and his bride-to-be end up in the Congo. Suddenly, they’ve been captured by the Congolese army, but before they – and we – know it, they’ve been passed on to someone else, for some other purpose, and the chinks of light, the hope of clarity, start to fade.
The title of the book is a reference, Nair tells us, to Michael Adriko’s homeland, The Happy Mountains, which were renamed “The Laughing Monsters” by the 19th-century missionary James Hannington “in frustration and disgust” (Hannington was later imprisoned by a Ugandan king and speared to death).
Of course, it also refers to our jolly, duelling protagonists, Nair and Adriko – both unpredictable, wayward forces driven by unclear, unreliable motives – whose dialogue-heavy scenes loom from the page like the voices of Dantean shades.
But wait. Isn’t there another monster lurking? Another presence who disseminates and disguises through his pages, and leaves his readers scrabbling blindly in the darkness? And is that the hint of a smile?
The Laughing Monsters (Harvill Secker) by Denis Johnson is out on 12 February