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Author Denis Johnson talks about literature's reckoning with the chaos of the universe

Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Denis Johnson's 'Laughing Monsters' adds to his astonishing collection of work often centered in chaos

Denis Johnson, the beloved, award-winning author best known for his seminal collection “Jesus’ Son” died Wednesday at age 67. Three years ago, Johnson gave a rare interview, corresponding with The Times to mark the publication of his 10th novel. The following article originally published Oct. 30, 2014.

Denis Johnson tends to let his work speak for itself. Since the publication of his debut novel, "Angels," in 1983 he's written some of the most essential books in contemporary American literature, but he doesn't often talk about them. "My general policy," he tells me in an email, "is to duck every such opportunity to make a fool of myself."

And yet to mark the publication of his 10th novel, "The Laughing Monsters" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 228 pp., $25), Johnson has agreed to what he calls "an electronic back-and-forth" — an email correspondence about the new novel, a political thriller set in Sierra Leone, Uganda and the Congo (a region he has covered as a journalist for Harper's, among other publications), writing in general and the breadth of his career.

For Johnson, literature offers a way of framing, or reckoning with, the chaos of a universe we can never truly know. "I can't remember very many situations," he admits, "where I had even the tiniest idea what the heck was going on. Meanwhile, you humans, you Earthlings — you all seem right at home. It's a great comfort to get out a blank sheet of paper and make a world where everybody's just as lost as I am."

Such a tension sits at the center of "The Laughing Monsters," narrated by Roland Nair, a NATO operative going off the grid. Nair is in West Africa to connect with a former colleague, a Ugandan named Michael Adriko, who may or may not have a scheme to sell uranium. Part of Nair's purpose is to report on Michael, but in many ways that's just a ruse. Instead, he is looking for something: a big score, yes, but even more, to feel alive again, to feel the charge of everything he can't control.

"And while you, my superiors, may think I've come to join him in Africa because you dispatched me here," Johnson writes early in the novel, "you're mistaken. I've come back because I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart. Michael only makes my excuse for returning."

This territory of anarchy and madness — let's call it derangement — is one to which Johnson has returned throughout his career. His 1992 collection "Jesus' Son," which sits on a short shelf of the finest American fiction of the last quarter-century, traces in 11 spare, linked stories the experiences of a recovering drug addict trying to find a place in an incomprehensible world.

"Tree of Smoke," which won a 2007 National Book Award, uses Vietnam as setting and metaphor, portraying derangement on a national scale.

"Reality is an impression, a belief," Michael tells Nair in "The Laughing Monsters," referring to the post-9/11 world in which the novel unfolds. In Johnson's view, however, this is less a political than a metaphysical posture, which makes "The Laughing Monsters" primarily a portrait of a character on the edge.

"I follow world events," Johnson explains, "but I'm not obsessed with politics, and that's probably because — it's occurred to me more than once — as a white North American I find things on this planet ordered pretty much in my favor. But as a storyteller I'm drawn to realistic, contemporary situations and to figures caught up in danger and chaos."

Such a statement brings to mind his 2000 novel "The Name of the World," in which a college professor, adrift after having lost his family, leaves the U.S. to become a war correspondent in the Middle East. Something similar unfolds in his nonfiction pieces "The Small Boy's Unit," which recounts his efforts to interview Charles Taylor in Liberia, or "An Anarchist's Guide to Somalia," with its sketchbook style account of "living in the Bible's world … the world of cripples and monsters and desperate hope in a mad God, world of exile and impotence and the waiting, the waiting, the waiting. A world of miracles and deliverance, too."

The Africa of "The Laughing Monsters" is related but different: elusive, uncontrolled, if deep in thrall to the American security state. Johnson finds the former of most interest, because it is the least easily understood.

"I went to Uganda less for research than for inspiration," he notes, "sights and sounds, voices. All I did was hang around and make notes on a small recorder about whatever seemed interesting. For 'Tree of Smoke' I spent only three weeks in Vietnam for a 600-page book. I visited Nicaragua briefly, and those notes went into 'The Stars at Noon.' Since I select what appeals to me, to my soul or my ear or whatever part does the selecting, I'm not surprised if different settings seem facets all reflecting one image. I don't know what the image is. Something that's always changing and always staying the same."

What Johnson's getting at is a kind of internal consistency, which marks his writing regardless of its form. The sense that wonder and bleakness often go hand in hand infuses not only his fiction but also his five books of poetry and his astonishing nonfiction collection, "Seek: Reports from the Edge of America & Beyond."

"I suppose if I were in school today," he acknowledges, "I'd be diagnosed as attention deficient and dosed with speed. I get bored quickly and try another style, another genre, another form. To me the writing is all one thing, or maybe I should say it's all nothing. The truth is, I just write sentences."

And what sentences they are. "In the silence, which was nevertheless quite loud, his folly bore down on us like a tremendous iceberg. Its inertia was irresistible," ) he observes in "The Laughing Monsters" — a passage that recalls the heart-stopping moment in "Jesus' Son" when his narrator meets a patient at a rehab center for whom possibility has been eclipsed. "No more pretending for him!" he writes there. "He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other."

For Johnson, it is our fate to be uncertain and yet to have to persevere.

"From time to time," he avers, "I seize on … some philosophy or stance or perspective that helps me hide my bewilderment for a while before it falls apart and leaves me baffled again. Just lately I'm listening to the Zen Buddhists: 'What you're looking for is directly in front of you; begin to reason about it, and at once you fall into error.' Which means, I suppose, that these days I distrust the idea of 'The Quest,' of getting anywhere at all, except in a story. Am I satisfied? Again I refer you to the Buddhists: Unsatisfied desire is life's bedrock experience."

As to how this adds up to a novel, Johnson insists he doesn't know.

"When I write, I don't think in terms of themes — or think in any terms, really," he explains. "I'm making what T.S. Eliot called 'quasi-musical decisions.' I'm just improvising and adapting, and in that case I suspect the story's course reflects the process of trying to make it. … I get in a teacup and start paddling across the little pond and say, 'In seven weeks, I'll land on Mars.' Five years later I'm still going in circles. When I reach the shore in spitting distance of where I started, it's a colossal triumph."

Twitter: @davidulin

The article originally incorrectly gave the title of Johnson's 2000 novel as "The Name at the End of the World." The title is "The Name of the World."
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