Relatability, Misery Porn, and Denis Johnson’s “The Laughing Monsters”

 

Denis Johnson’s latest novel is dark. This is not uncharted territory for the man, but the bleakness here is obliterating. There is a detached and passive depression in the narration, the first-person perspective of an utterly unsympathetic intelligence operative (Roland Nair) who has come back to Africa for selfish reasons that seem rather nebulous -possibly even to the narrator himself. As events unfold in front of him, his perspective casts everything in a dull gray haze, a distant and removed malaise that evokes both a miserable sense of place and Nair’s own clear depression. The secondary characters are vivid and compelling, clearly existing in a space apart from our narrator, motives as incorporeal and obscured as his own, at least to him.

None of this is a complaint. I loved this book, as I have loved almost everything Johnson has written. As I have said, I’m less than patient with our current pop-literary obsession with relatability. If the only characters people want to read are reflections of themselves, one of the most compelling arguments for the existence of literature itself is defeated. A protagonist who is “good” in the sense of being an interesting and engaging character is often not morally good. These places where characters breaks from societal norms and conventions within their own minds create some of the most vivid and powerful experiences in fiction. When these breaks are exacerbated by some kind of internal mental division, (Hamlet’s uncertainty, Humbert Humbert’s delusions, or Nair’s passive depression) this dramatic importance is given complexity and nuance.

The flip side of the hyper-relatable equation is the descent into a wallowing in abject misery. I’m reminded of Herta Mueller’s, “Nadirs” a wonderfully written book that is just overwhelmingly and unredeemably black (in the most spiritual sense of the world). Without something else in the mix, this kind of bleakness can dissolve into simple misery porn, an unabashed writhing in the most comically unhappy nonsense a reader can imagine. “Nadirs” redeems itself through its captivating, almost prose-poem lyricism. “The Laughing Monsters” redeems itself with a slickly paced narrative every bit the equal of the best spy/military novels (Johnson is ever the literary chameleon) and an unforgettable handful of beatifully broken people, behaving badly.

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