On Denis Johnson’s ‘The Laughing Monsters’

0374280592.01.LZZZZZZZMarc Mewshaw at The Millions:

Seven years after taking on military intelligence in the National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke, Johnson returns to the subject once again. But The Laughing Monsters is a much slighter affair, a fizzy alcopop compared to that kaleidoscopic work’s dark, bitter brew. Still, it leaves a poisonous aftertaste and grapples with existential queries far above its pay grade — questions of grace, theodicy, and unknowability.

Leave it to Johnson, variously hailed as a visionary in the Blakean mold and a “junkyard angel,” to twist the slender frame of the “spy thriller” into a shape that can bear such hefty cosmic freight. Indeed, much of the novel’s charm lies in its disregard for the limitations of the genre. By breaking all the rules, The Laughing Monsters becomes something new — a seriocomic spy novel that’s both timely and universal.

Just as the novel is no conventional thriller, Nair is no conventional international man of mystery. He’s a crazy patchwork of identities, divided loyalties, and conflicts of interest, a spook expert in laying fiber-optic communication cables who’s also dabbled in drugs and diamonds. Equal parts dissipated opportunist and vulnerable coward, he’s inflamed above all with a lust for “cheap adventure,” whoring and buccaneering his way across the continent.

more here.