Denis Johnson applies his trademark well-tooled prose to the spy genre in “The Laughing Monsters,” a literary thriller that seems to delight in dismantling its own thrills.
The set-up is straightforward enough. The novel is narrated by Roland Nair, a Danish-American intelligence agent who ostensibly works for NATO but chiefly works for himself. His latest assignment is to return to his old haunts in West Africa and monitor Michael Adriko, a native Ugandan who vanished from his post with U.S. Special Forces.
That assignment is quickly abandoned, however, once Nair meets Adriko (and his exquisite fiancée, Davidia St. Claire) and signs on for a harebrained scheme: ripping off Mossad operatives with a shady uranium deal.
If the stakes weren’t treasonous already, Nair sells U.S. intel on the side, implicating his girlfriend, Tina, back home. Nair, as it turns out, is an unreliable agent and an even worse lover.
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Like any spy archetype, Nair has a propensity for hard drink and easy women, and their frequent combination leads to foggy interpretations of the world around him and dreamy, disconnected scenes. Stupefying oneself, Johnson seems to suggest, is the only way to endure the tortured climes and characters of West Africa.
Nair and Adriko’s inept espionage can feel like gallows slapstick, “Naked Gun” meets “Heart of Darkness,” and Johnson can’t resist a few digs at the post-9/11 intelligence world.
To Johnson, the African sky is “the void,” the cries at night just “humans and their despairing animals,” the seas not blue but a “lustrous black.” The author might not directly invoke the “Dark Continent” cliché, but it lurks in the margins of each page.
And that attention to the landscape, while beautifully expressed, is hard to reconcile with Nair’s drunken buffoonery.
As Nair drives through the borderlands near Uganda, he feels the weight of “the crowded twilight, this thickly human evening … a multitude of insects ringing all around us like finger cymbals.”
The prose is compelling enough to forgive Johnson a few tortured stacks of modifiers (“a densely luminous terrifying aubergine”), but it’s not enough to rescue the narrative from a dogged nihilism that begins to feel cheap. And a flat female cast compounds the narrative troubles.
Nair longs to steal Davidia away from her fiancé but can drum up few qualities to praise beyond her “round breasts.” Her greatest achievement in the novel is narrowly avoiding rape. Nair’s girlfriend, Tina, is afforded no more complexity, securing his attention only after he receives (surprise!) an e-mailed photo of her own naked breasts.
Though Johnson makes certain capitulations to the spy genre, it’s hard, ultimately, to consider his book a thriller. “Laughing Monsters” is a tightly plotted novel packed with joyless marvels, its horrors condensed to an insectine buzz.
The effect leaves us dazzled but cold, feeling about the novel the way Nair feels about the 100 milliliter packets of liquor he discovers and drains. What a novelty, tearing them open and sucking them down. What a bore, waking up with the same old hangover.
Liz Cook is a regular reviewer fo The Star.
The Laughing Monsters, by Denis Johnson (228 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $25)