This, at any rate, seems to be Nair’s goal. He blindly follows Adriko into a crazy plot to scam undercover Israeli nationals into buying phony enriched uranium. Shoot-outs and knife fights ensue, as do brushes with Interpol, the Mossad, the CIA, and MI5; kidnappings and escapes; and a particularly Kurtzian episode in the Congo jungle, amid a tribe that appears to have gone terminally insane. At some point along the way, Nair has the brilliant idea to pawn NATO and U.S. intelligence secrets to a mysterious foreign agent who is probably representing China.
Just when the deluge of state secrets threatens to dissolve into chaos, Johnson retreats. He is a courteous guide, careful to remind the reader what has happened, and where we are going. As the details begin to overwhelm, he turns our attention inward, to a love triangle formed by Nair, Adriko, and Adriko’s fiancée, a beautiful American whose father is a commander with the U.S. Special Forces. The spy plot yields to a story of thwarted love. For all its chaos and complexity, The Laughing Monsters is one of Johnson’s most disciplined efforts. He never loses control, even though Nair most certainly does.
At some point—perhaps after Nair has his first breakdown, or at least by the time he finds himself in the middle of the Congo jungle at the mercy of a tribe ruled by a madwoman screaming for blood sacrifice—the reader may begin to wonder what this is all about. Are we reading a fable about the new global order, and America’s increasingly tenuous grasp of reality beyond its borders? There are gestures in this direction. “Since nine-eleven,” says one high-ranking U.S. intelligence agent, “chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. An industry. A lucrative one.” At other times Johnson seems to be posing questions about personal liberty and ambition. Is Nair in control of his fate, or has he yielded to mystical, primitive forces? Elsewhere the novel reads like an inquiry into the lure of nihilistic hedonism in an amoral age. Nair has returned to Africa, and intelligence work, because “I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart. Michael only makes my excuse for returning.” Nair doesn’t want simply to observe the madness; he wants to fall apart too.
There is an echo here of the rapid descent into chaos and lasciviousness in Georges Simenon’s Tropic Moon, also set in West Africa, and of the determination to “go to pieces” that inspires the heroines of Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles’s novel about tropical dissolution. Nair, like Bowles’s serious ladies, will do anything to avoid returning to his old “boring existence.” The exact contours of that boring existence are never explicated, though we can assume that it includes an office job and marriage to poor, dutiful Tina.
Then again, his colonial fantasy of living out the rest of his existence “like Rhodes in Rhodesia,” the lord of his own personal African fiefdom, comes to feel no less nightmarish. Johnson, or at least Nair, does not have a particularly nuanced view of Africa. The Laughing Monsters is never more retrograde than in its hoary view of the continent—a “land of chaos, despair,” of two-headed babies and reckless drivers who don’t bother to glance in the rearview mirror at the people they run over in the road. Nair is prone to declarations like “In Africa, reasonable arguments were just mumbo jumbo.” Or: “Sometimes you just get stuck. That’s Africa.” In Africa, “there’s always some woman or infant or animal screaming.”