‘The Laughing Monsters’ by Denis Johnson – Just Another Genre Novel

‘The Laughing Monsters’ by Denis Johnson   (2014) – 228 pages   Grade: C


I have been impatient with the fiction of Denis Johnson for many years.

A long time ago after reading Denis Johnson’s brilliant first novel, ‘Angels’, and his book of stories, ‘Jesus’ Son’, I made a decision to follow Johnson’s writing career wherever it took him.  Unfortunately since then Johnson has severely tested my decision to follow him by writing a long series of competent if rather dull genre novels.

The qualities that I loved in ‘Angels’ and ‘Jesus’ Son’ were the daring originality, the disturbing luminous intensity of his vision.  I never thought Johnson would settle to be a competent if less than inspiring genre fiction writer. He has been writing cookie cutter versions of novels in various genres for a long time.  ‘Fiskadoro’ was his post-apocalyptic novel; ‘Nobody Move’ was his James Cain crime noir novel; ‘The Stars at Noon’ his Robert Stone Central American intrigue novel; and ‘Train Dreams’ was his Cormac McCarthy western minimalism novel.

‘The Laughing Monsters’ is apparently his Graham Greene spy novel with its African setting and much clap-trap about agents following one another around the continent.  Graham Greene is probably the most imitated novelist in the world, but ‘The Laughing Monsters’ has none of the joie de vivre of Greene’s novels.  Johnson goes through all the plot motions of Greene here but with little of the special good-natured energy that Greene usually brought to his stories.

Most of the scenes take place in old hotels the British left behind.  Many of the people staying in these hotels are medical workers dealing with the various African health crises.  Post 9/11, major concerns are terrorist plots.  The MacGuffin here is Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU).  The Russians, the Chinese, the Mossad from Israel, the Indians, a few Euros, the Arabs, and the Americans mostly under the auspices of NATO are all here.

“I’ve come back because I love the mess.  Anarchy. Madness.  Things falling apart.”    

 I found ‘The Laughing Monsters’ eminently forgettable and have not thought about its story once since I finished reading it a week ago.  The Guardian, while generally positive, wrote: “While Nobody Move was the equal of most crime fiction, The Laughing Monsters is inferior to the very best spy novels.”  Agreed.  I love Graham Greene novels, but usually can’t stand others’ imitations because they lack his unique spirit.

I should make one disclaimer here.  I have not read Denis Johnson’s 2007 National Book Award winner, the 614-page ‘Tree of Smoke’, which is a Vietnam War novel.  Considering the award and the praise this novel has gotten, it might change my mind about his fiction entirely, but at this point I have little enthusiasm to read it.



8 responses to this post.

  1. How disappointing to discover an author you love, only to have that author let you down. I suppose it’s a commercial decision, maybe he’s writing a great novel and using these better-selling genre novels to pay for it. But it shows the wisdom of writing under a different name when writing across different genres, John Banville does this so that we know what we’re getting…



    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, John Banville uses the pseudonym Benjamin Black for his detective novels. Denis Johnson is probably a case where I expected too much and was bound to be let down. I don’t think in Johnson’s case his genre novels sell all that well.



  2. Sorry to hear that Johnson’s latest was a disappointment. I haven’t read it (and will probably give it a miss) but I must admit to admiring the pared-back style of Train Dreams. It did remind me of Cormac McCarthy though. I have an unread copy of Jesus’ Son, which sounds like the best one for me to try next.



    • Hi JacquiVine,
      ‘Jesus’ Son’ is unusual in that it is a collection of stories. Usually an author’s most famous work is not a collection of stories, but it is with Denis Johnson. I kind of think that Johnson was meant to write short stories, but there’s no market for them so he writes novels. I’ve seen him speak here at the University of Minnesota about writing, but didn’t find him particularly inspiring.



  3. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on December 14, 2014 at 12:38 PM

    The only Johnson I’ve ever made it through was “Already Dead” which I loved and thought was quite amazing. Alas, I’ve never found anything of his that had the same effect on me…. :s



    • Hi Kaggsy,
      I guess Johnson was a heavy druggie and drinker when young. When he found some writing success he gave them up. I think that my expectations for him are two high, and thus I’m too easily disappointed.

      Liked by 1 person


  4. I have Jesus’ Son and Train Dreams, though I’m yet to read either. The subject matter grabs me here, but I agree with you about Greene who has tremendous spirit as you say and is just a hugely effective (and in his own way fairly minimalist) writer.

    So, a definitely maybe. A plus for the subject matter, a bit of a minus for your lukewarm-at-best reaction.



    • Hi Max,
      Problem is, I’ve read just about everything Graham Greene wrote so I need to find other writers that are really on my wavelength. Since discovering Greene, I haven’t discovered any other writer who fully satisfies unless its Elena Ferrante, and she’s a woman. Enrique Vila-Matas has some of that quality, but he’s only written a couple of books.



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