Denis 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.