Not Graham Greene: On Denis Johnson’s ‘The Laughing Monsters’

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“I’m not trying to be Graham Greene. I think I actually am Graham Greene,” Denis Johnson told his editor before turning in the manuscript for his new novel, The Laughing Monsters. The novel takes place amid the maelstrom of corruption in modern day Africa, often in Sierra Leone, where Graham Greene ventured to write The Heart of the Matter. Greene’s own wanderlust precipitated his recruitment into the British secret service, so it’s not a surprise to find Johnson’s new book awash in the language of espionage. Nor is it the first time: Johnson’s National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke featured CIA agents in Vietnam; The Laughing Monsters deals with the exploits of a corrupt, half-Scandinavian NATO operative named Roland Nair. One starts to wonder if Denis Johnson isn’t also a CIA or NATO recruit, but, then again, his father did work for the U.S. State Department.

Greene divided his output between proper novels and “entertainments” that he wrote quickly and for money… only, the entertainments are often the better books. For Johnson’s part, he tells us that The Laughing Monsters is itself an entertainment, which may sound like a strange claim to make about a novel set in 21st century Africa, which is now so readily exploited. Yet it’s this exploitation that seems to have piqued Johnson’s interest in the region. Diamond-laden and mineral-rich, the Africa of The Laughing Monsters is a playground for a new form of colonialism, one the book argues has emerged since the 9/11 attacks, that marries the corruption of individual spies with the interests of wealthy nation-states.

When the novel opens, Nair is searching for his former partner-in-exploitation, a shady, shifty mercenary named Michael Adriko. Much of the novel’s first third is convincingly set in the shitty hotels of Freetown, Sierra Leone, where Nair lingers and asks a lot of unanswered questions, and the sweltering banality of the environment is wholly convincing. But it’s this banality — the casual fraudulence of these men, whose obsession with making money is childish and annoying — that clashes constantly with the reality of an exploited continent. I take this to be the point of The Laughing Monsters: exploitation is easier to spot if you shine a light on the cracks between nations.

The novel’s problem, though, is that it teeters between such dark subject matter and its own hard-boiled posturing. It simply doesn’t make sense to be Graham Greene — a quintessential 20th century novelist — in the 21st century. The book is too light to be a serious novel: the African backdrop, even if it’s painted masterfully, is never more than a backdrop. And it’s too creepily, seriously dark to be convincing as an entertainment. Yes, murder and violence have been trivialized ad nauseum, and are somehow thematically ripe for mindless consumption. The issues raised in The Laughing Monsters, though, are too sensitive to be glossed so readily. Early in the novel, Nair takes a 15-year-old African girl into his hotel room, tells her to take a shower, and has sex with her. “I was glad she didn’t know English,” he says. “I could say whatever I wanted to her, and I did. Terrible things.” Later, Adriko delivers a short, sophistic speech about how rich they’ll become:

“You’ll live like a king. A compound by the beach. Fifty men with AKs to guard you. The villagers come to you for everything. They bring their daughters, twelve years old — virgins, Nair, no AIDS from these girls…”

Johnson is unflinching when he stares into human darkness, perhaps more so than any novelist we have (in America). A large part of the “hypnotic” vision that permeates his novels requires this steely pose. And the deeper Johnson goes, the more “visionary” his language becomes. But in The Laughing Monsters, he seems to be looking away, almost bored, when a more sustained vision is needed. It isn’t hard to imagine what prompted Johnson’s interest in an exploited Africa—we are now seeing the repercussions of our malfeasance on the news each day. But it is hard to understand why Johnson believes The Laughing Monsters is both an entertainment and “a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene.” And, anyway, we don’t need another Graham Greene. We already have John le Carré.