Denis Johnson and his new novel

lmDenis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters is a strange book, a first-person narration of adventures and misadventures in Africa. I suppose it is also about spies and deception, but that is a first impression–First, Second, and Third impressions of anything are usually wrong, common, and stupid.

Half of The Laughing Monsters isn’t a very good Denis Johnson novel. One thinks Johnson knows this, because the structure of the short book, over 4 parts, is a story of a story, of how a story is told, and what a narrator of a story, especially an African story, tells. Africa is one of the last places on earth where a story can determine if one lives or dies–stories matter in the bush in ways civilized societies cannot fathom.

Roland Nair is the narrator, a Dutch spy, perhaps, traveling on a US passport. He has contacts he wants to see and those he doesn’t care to see. For the first two parts of novel, Nair is one a handful of shady players, along with Michael, an African of dubious origin and intent, and Davidia, Michael’s Colorado-born fiancee.

Much happens in the first two parts of The Laughing Monsters and one is uncertain if one is supposed to care. The writing is base-level prose, hardly the Johnson of the brilliant Train Dreams. But then part 3 hits, and a new Nair narration takes over, with paper and pen, as he is held by Congolese army goons, and all becomes right in the world of Johnson’s genius. Part 4 continues with half-close, half-distant narration, and it ties back to the first two parts, and illuminates Johnson’s design to the novel–he’s having us on, showing us a mad Africa in full bloom, as a westerner, as an impostor, sees it.

Part 3 and parts of part 4 are wonderful and contain Johnson at his best. The Laughing Monsters is short but not easy, and later this week I will likely have a fourth and fifth and maybe sixth impression of it.

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A couple Chinese brothers

Brothers by Yu Hua is becoming one of my favorite novels of the recent past. It came out in 2009 in America and it is a monster of a book, but it reads as fast and funny as Yu’s previous smaller offerings, To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. Those short novels were filled with ribald humor, and the massive¬†Brothers has doubled up on both the laughs and the sorrow. This is China one is reading about.

Outside of Yu I know nothing of Chinese authors; I don’t know if Chang Rae Lee or Ha Jin–names I’ve seen on books–are Chinese, Chinese-American, British subjects of Hong Kong, or Alabama natives. Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Lit a couple years back, and I still haven’t heard anyone tell me I need to read him, but I know he’s Chinese because a bunch of people who hadn’t read him got upset that he won the Nobel.

Yu Hua is a terrific novelist. With Brothers he tells a story of two brothers in a fictional Chinese town in the 1960s and 70s where people are named after their occupations–Blacksmith Tong, Poet Zhao, Yanker Yu–he yanks out teeth. A third into the book at page 200, the brothers Baldy Li and Song Gang are 15 and 16 respectively. Here’s a good comprehensive review of Brothers from the LA Times in 2009.