"The Laughing Monsters" is a 2014 novel by Denis Johnson, combining aspects of "thriller" fiction with literary fiction. The book, set sometime around the time it was published, details the lives of two main protagonists: Roland Nair, a Danish Army captain working for NATO and Michael Adreki, a freelance mercenary from Uganda with a mysterious and changing agenda, as well as an African-American fiance. During the middle of the plots and counter-plots of the "War on Terror", they meet in Africa and engage in at least a few of those plots, travelling across the continent in a manner that alternates between both glamorous and tawdry and high-stakes and no-stakes.

This book combines the usual settings and themes of espionage/thriller fiction, with the hallucinatory prose of magical realism or gonzo journalism. Which is similar to what Johnson did in works such as Already Dead or Tree of Smoke: confuse the reader about whether it is the objective progress of a plot that is important, or whether that is just a framing device to present personal experiences.

Halfway through this book, I was getting annoyed, because none of the book made sense. The two main protagonists, who were presumably highly-skilled, highly-experienced soldiers/agents, were engaging in schemes that were akin to teenagers selling oregano in a Taco Bell parking lot. There is something to do with fake yellow cake Uranium, a map of telecom lines, South African mercenaries, Mossad, etc...it really stopped making sense. And at this point, I made a choice, which is to decide that it not making sense was indeed what the author intended. At times, when reading books, I have to decide whether an author was being incompetent or making a point, and here I chose the second one, unlike the last book I read.

And this might, indeed, be the intended point:

"Since nine-eleven, chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. An industry. A lucrative one."
as one character admits. And suggesting that everything since nine-eleven was just a desperately maintained hallucination of order, fueled by endless money distributed among schemers and grifters makes sense, as we saw recently, when after twenty years of spinning, Kabul fell in a few weeks.

But to return to the book: even though there were things I didn't like about the book, and I felt that it was somewhat problematic in its treatment of Africa as a land of chaos (but then, Denis Johnson wrote a book about Humboldt County, my one-time home, as a land of chaos), I decided to suspend my disbelief and assume that was part of the author's intentions, and I was rewarded by appreciating the book's paranoid, hallucinatory atmosphere. Maybe this book has a political message, maybe it is just a description of consciousness, but at a certain point, I got something out of it.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.