Everyone knows spy-thrillers. An operative has a futile task they have to accomplish it before the world, as we know it, ends (or something to that effect).
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson follows this spy-thriller arc but elevates the cookie-cutter plotline. Characters are not what they appear, locations are ever-changing and situations are not what they seem. Strap on your seatbelt and get ready to take a ride with Johnson as he guides you through all the twists and turns his book has to offer.
Characters are the most basic aspect to any book. In most good books a character is relatable, witty, intelligent, and just a smidge awkward. The main character of Johnson’s novel, Nair, is all of those things but not in the stereotypical way.
For most of the book, I found myself wanting to reach through the pages and shake some sense into this man. He arrives in Africa on a clandestine mission for NATO, but as soon as his plane touches down in Sierra Leone, he meets up with a devilishly scatterbrained friend Michael and his beautiful fourth fiancé, Davidia. The trouble Michael manages to get this rag-tag group into is breathtaking, taking them all the way from Sierra Leone to Uganda.
By using neither an American protagonist nor setting the novel in the United States, Johnson is able to give his readers a sense of what the intelligence community is like outside of this country.
Nair comments that in the post-9/11 world, “I think you could easily say the part that’s changed the most is the world of intelligence, security, and defense…The money’s simply without limit, and plenty of it goes for snitching and spying.” In a world where countries do not trust each other and they have greater capacity for destruction, solid information could mean the difference between life and ruin.
The book is divided into three parts with no chapters separating the parts. Instead, within each portion, there are page breaks, which denote pauses or changes in locations or ideas. Within each part, Johnson slightly changes his writing style. These changes take many different forms. One part is made up Nair writing, but never seeming to receive, emails from the enigmatic character named Tina. Another part is just a normal dialog based narration with Nair always taking the first-person voice.
At times, the plot can be a bit hard to follow. It is common within the spy-thriller genre for nothing ever to be as it seems and for characters to never mean what they say. Because of this, it takes active reading to follow Johnson through his novel.
That is not to say, however, that his book is any less worth reading. On the contrary, with so much of reading nowadays becoming solely focused on trashy magazine-like websites (which are good for their own purposes) it is a nice change of pace to actually be required to think in order to follow a plot line.
Furthermore, Johnson offers his readers a look at what a soldier’s psyche really looks like. You may ask what soldiers have to do with spies, but, what are spies if not clandestine soldiers? Michael says that “[a] soldier must never think. In fact, when you’re forbidden to think it comes as a relief.” The reader quickly learns that, due the immense pressure a man in Nair or Michael’s position is under, thinking and decision-making come as huge surprises, and even hindrances, to their commanding officers. A good spy does what he is told, or that is what they want you to believe.
If want you want to take a break from March Madness and exercise your brain somewhere else, Johnson’s novel is the place to do it.