What the Hell Is Denis Johnson Doing?

JOHN TESCHNER: My first exposure to Denis Johnson was in the fall of 2010. I’d gotten into the habit of listening to The New Yorker fiction podcasts on my iPod when I was running. We were living in South Minneapolis and I’d do a loop around Lake Nokomis, then climb the long hill up Cedar Avenue back to my house. I was working my way through the podcast archive, and on this particular day, an author named Salvatore Scibona was reading a Johnson story called “Two Men.”

For the rest of my life, I’ll associate that story and the whole Jesus’ Son collection with the feeling of climbing a long hill up a nondescript street on an overcast day while my brain went highwire as the story built to its climax: I don’t care, you’re going to be sorry. I was shocked by the technical accomplishment of what I was hearing, how original it was, how uncompromising, how perfect. I didn’t understand how Johnson could make so many things work together at once: the absolutely real yet completely surreal voice, the cold-blooded narration balanced by the uncontrollable emotion that propelled the plota plot that managed to be enthralling despite its consisting of nothing but random incident. The sense that truly anything could happen next. The rest of Jesus’ Son is just as good or better; I know a lot has been said about that book, but not enough can be said.

All of which offers some context before I launch into Denis Johnson’s new novel, The Laughing Monsters, which is one of the shittiest books I have ever read. George, I know you agree with me on this. Where do we start?

GEORGE TESCHNER: Where to start indeed! How about the exchange that made me accept that is this book was not just bad, but comically bad. (I held out hope that Johnson would somehow redeem himself for almost seventy pages.) Our narrator, the disillusioned spy Roland Nair, and his scheming mercenary friend, Michael Adriko, have a heated discussion after an attempt to sell fake uranium to a couple of possibly Mossad henchmen ends in a violent confrontation:

“In the end you have to go by instinct.”

“You trust too Goddamn much.”

“Is that a fault?”

“What? Yes. A fatal one. The life you lead, the people you deal with—do you think it’s just teddy bears hugging marshmallows?”

Nowhere in the preceding pages of booze, prostitutes, intrigue, and stereotypical African characters did I get the impression that anyone in this novel thought life was “just teddy bears hugging marshmallows.” I loved Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, another espionage novel set in an exotic location (Vietnam), but when I read this exchange I knew The Laughing Monsters was going to be a total disaster.

John, you have told me on multiple occasions that you think fiction has an effect on the human brain that no other form of writing has. I want to ask you: What effect did this particular book have on your brain?

JOHN: I actually gave up hope at the second sentence: “The shuttle to the terminal wasn’t bad, but not air-conditioned.” This is a terrible sentence in every way that a sentence can be terrible: It’s ugly, uninformative, and bereft of insight or import.

When I say that fiction has an effect on my brain, I’m usually talking about how a good novel knits together extraordinary complexity: language, plot, image, character, metaphor, meaning, etc. The focused act of following that complexity, losing ourselves in it, actually helps our minds reorganize. (I think of our brains as being like the computers we grew up with, where the longer you used them the more the little bits of RAM or whatever moved around and got stuck in the wrong place; you had to run “Defragment” to put them all back so your computer could run smoothly again.) Some of the healing properties of a novel come from escaping into that world. We forget we are reading and get caught up in the story. Maybe the main reason The Laughing Monsters is so lousy is that I kept stumbling over sentences like the one above, which are so bad they remind me that I’m reading.

Also, the characters are half-baked and unconvincing; it’s never clear what the plot actually is or what we are supposed to care about; and the whole Africa setting is a surreal throwback to the old Dr. Livingstone, Heart of Darkness, “His sandals and feet were tainted with the same African muck,” racist bullshit. I’m not saying it’s politically incorrect to write bad things about Africa or Africans, and I will defend Heart of Darkness as a great book whose racism is a product of its time, but Denis Johnson has no excuse. It’s the 21st Century!

That “African muck” quote is from this book, by the way. I could create a more convincing index of all the crazy witch doctors, starving children, slack-jawed women, bloodthirsty rebels, corrupt soldiers, corrupted white people, and every other stereotype Johnson uses, but it would end being about as long as the book itself. People don’t have to write nice things about Africa; I’ve lived there and seen plenty that isn’t nice. I just think people ought to write their not-nice things in a way that doesn’t seem like they were borrowed straight from other lousy books. If Johnson were adding one iota of original detail or perspective to the Heart of Darkness story, then maybe I would get his intentions. But he never even seems to try. The question I found myself asking over and over again is, “What the hell is Denis Johnson trying to do here?”

GEORGE: The only thing in the book that rang true about my trip visiting you in Kenya was a passing reference to trash bag fires. This novel is jumbled. The narration fluctuates between the real-time thoughts in Nair’s head, emails to his girlfriend and fellow agent Tina, progress reports to his superiors, and feverish journals written with whatever is at Nair’s disposal. By the end of the novel Nair can’t even distinguish between his love for Tina, whom he has hung out to dry, and for Davidia St. Claire, the fiancé of his friend Michael, whom he falls madly in love with over the course of his African escapades, seemingly by default.

Though the plot is weak, it was one of the few things that kept me pushing through the novel. I was especially interested in whether Nair would feel remorse for going off to Africa to meet up with his friend, sleeping with prostitutes, and double-crossing the spy agency he works for (whoever the hell that is), and leaving Tina holding the bag. “I believe that by making this transaction the two of us risked life sentences. Like anyone in the field of intelligence, Tina asked no questions. Besides, she loved me.” But Johnson nimbly removes himself from having to resolve these issues by suddenly replacing Tina with Davidia as Nair’s source of infatuation. With Tina more or less out of the picture, Johnson is free to let his story spiral out of control with almost zero moral heft.

Oh Davidia! Or maybe I mean

Oh, Tina!

Whichever is your name, I call to you, oh woman of my heart.

JOHN: It’s generous of you to suggest that the explanation for Nair’s incredibly unconvincing infatuation with Davidia St. Clair is that it solved a technical plotting problem. This whole novel ended up preoccupying me with meta-questions like these, rather than an enjoyment of what was on the page. I finally did some googling and found an email exchange Johnson conducted with the editors at the Yale Literary Magazine, one year ago, from Uganda:

I’m gathering backgroundlocal color, sights and soundsfor a novel that takes place in Sierra Leone, and here in Uganda, and also partly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose border lies just a few miles west of Arua. It’s kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene. I told my editor Jonathan Galassi at FSG, “I’m not trying to be Graham Greene. I think I actually am Graham Greene.”

(A) I’d be curious to hear Jonathan Galassi’s justification for the existence of this book in print. (B) I was kind of gratified to read this, because when I was still inclined to be charitable about this book, it occurred to me Johnson might be trying to write a Graham Greene novel, and maybe I should applaud him for stretching himself into new genres instead of just repeating the things he was comfortable with. But even if that was the intention, it still doesn’t explain why he would consider this particular effort anything but an unpublishable failure.

The Graham Greene comment also suggests Johnson wrote this book in earnest, which torpedoed my second charitable explanation—that it is an intentional “fuck you” to all the people in the literary world, a way of pranking them for adopting the general consensus rather than making their own judgments. The other result of my googling was a rating of 3.5 out of 5 on Goodreads, a very enthusiastic review in The Daily Beast, and a mildly enthusiastic review in the New York Times, which ultimately called it a “minor work.”

I have to admit that all I’ve ever read of Johnson are Jesus’ Son, Tree of Smoke, and Train Dreams—his three major works—but if his other books are like this one, then I am even more mystified by meta-questions, particularly since Johnson now goes around calling Jesus’ Son a minor work, bar stories that he ripped from some old journals.

I want to wrap up my spiel with a passage from the Jesus’ Son story “Dundun.” The title character has just shot a man who is dying in the backseat as Fuckhead, the narrator, and Dundun drive him to the hospital:

It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller. What can be said about those fields? There were blackbirds circling above their own shadows, and beneath them the cows stood around smelling one another’s butts. Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say.

These are sentences—especially the interrogative in the middle of the paragraph—that are as good as sentences can be. (And Johnson actually manages to top them, or at least give them closure, a few paragraphs later in the story’s finale.) I was reminded of them at a similarly climactic passage in The Laughing Monsters, which—despite its zany narrative, off-kilter characters, exotic setting, and 200+ pages—manages to contain so much less than “Dundun”:

We entered open farmland. In the mud, the treadprints of goats and barefoot humans. The wet fields shone hard enough to burn my eyes. We passed boys as they stopped hoeing to throw themselves down in the corn rows with their arms flung wide and chins in the dirt, praying to Mecca, but they sounded like coyotes howling … I looked across a landscape of rolling hills and silhouettes—the lumps of huts, a few skeletal, solitary trees, and three cell phone towers with much the same lonely and distinguished aspect, one in the north, two others beyond it in the northwest.

It isn’t so much that this passage is particularly egregious—The Laughing Monsters contains much, much worse—but that it lacks everything that made the language in Jesus’ Son great. The sentences are ugly, obvious, and tired, and all the cliched African juju, Western spycraft, alcoholic dereliction, and third-world thuggery just make that tiredness more obvious. Maybe it’s naive of me to ask, but if you’re capable of greatness, how can you settle for anything less?

GEORGE: To steal a line from Jalen Rose, “Keep gettin’ dem checks, Denis Johnson.” To give it a rating of anything above tolerable seems like a stretch. If this book didn’t have Johnson’s name on it, there would be absolutely no reason to read it. A lot of crazy things, and a lot of things, period, happen in this book. At one point Michael runs over a local woman on the side of the road and does not even slow down. Yet these events have no resonance. I never felt invested in the characters because they lived in a world without consequences. Every time Nair and Michael get themselves in a sticky situation, they disappear under a tarp, or someone (e.g., a Danish spy pretending to be a fellow prisoner) helps them escape.

The only thing about this book that seems like a Graham Greene novel is that it involves spies in a third world country. Greene’s Quiet American asked us to observe the collateral damage of Cold War spycraft, and Johnson clearly wants us to grapple with the question of whether our post-9/11 world, with its professional class of spies and mercenaries, really make us any safer. But the frantic pace and moral barrenness of this novel kill my desire to search for any larger meaning. I wish that instead of trying to be Graham Greene, Denis Johnson had tried to be Denis Johnson.

George Teschner is a Dostoevsky man. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.