In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s address to the White House Correspondents’ Association on March 15, 1941, he said, “Nazi forces are not seeking mere modifications in colonial maps or in minor European boundaries. They openly seek the destruction of all elective systems of government on every continent—including our own. . . . These men and their hypnotized followers call this a new order. It is not new. It is not order. . . . Humanity will never permanently accept a system imposed by conquest and based on slavery.” Nine months later, following the Pearl Harbor attack, he told the public: “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.” Hostilities exist. It was true then, and it is true everywhere, in all times, the sort of eternal verity that Rudyard Kipling wrote about in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.”
When John Kerry remarked, upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion,” he revealed a profound weakness for wishful thinking. Human nature has never bothered to consult the calendar. As of this writing, ISIS has beheaded another civilian, the British aid worker Alan Henning. That is not particularly nineteenth-century behavior. It belongs to today, and to the eighteenth century and its guillotines, and to every century, reaching back into prehistory.
It will belong to tomorrow.
Few contemporary novelists write as convincingly as James Ellroy does about this fact of human nature. His new novel Perfidia shows us the roiling witches’ cauldron that was Los Angeles in the days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Perfidia inaugurates Ellroy’s Second L.A. Quartet, which is a prequel to the First L.A. Quartet. Many characters from the First Quartet, which comprises The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992), reappear in Perfidia. Perfidia, named after the classic song performed by Glenn Miller, Linda Ronstadt, and countless others, depicts all manner of wickedness: romantic betrayal, police brutality, corruption, Fifth Column treachery, Japanese internment, and war profiteering.
The men and women in Ellroy’s Los Angeles—some of whom, like LAPD Captain William H. Parker, J. Edgar Hoover, and Bette Davis, are based on real people—are larger than life, driven by violent passions and gargantuan appetites. They crave sex, hooch, professional advancement, money, control, and justice, both genuine and viciously expedient. Serving with Parker is Sergeant Dudley Smith, a maniacal, murderous law-unto-himself who would as soon pervert justice as draw breath (or opium smoke, as the case may be). The forensics expert Hideo Ashida is not only the sole Japanese-American in the LAPD, but also a closeted homosexual. Kay Lake, a young thrill-seeker without a cause, becomes an agent provocateur under Captain Parker’s private command, ingratiating herself with Communist Fifth Columnists.
Perfidia has a massive cast—the helpful dramatis personae at the end of the book is five pages long—but it is told from these four perspectives, with Lake’s narration styled as diary entries. In the story, as these four witness it, Ellroy manages to out-Herod himself and all but the most brutal crime writers. A Japanese family is found dead of apparent ritual suicide on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack. A note at the scene alludes to an imminent catastrophe. Yet, as evidence mounts, it becomes increasingly clear that the family was murdered, and the question Cui bono? begins to admit a dizzying array of answers.
The question of who will benefit—from the investigation, from the war, from the looming internment of the Japanese—is at the heart of Perfidia. As in all of the best crime lit, everyone’s got an angle, and the clash of wills and schemes makes for gripping, if concentration-taxing, reading. There is cheering news for anyone who has trouble keeping track of every double-cross, beatdown, tong rivalry, back-alley execution, crooked land grab, eugenics plot, and, believe it, sabotaged submarine. Ellroy manages to recap the proceedings in a way that even the dimmest bulbs can comprehend. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, emphasis on hell.
If Ellroy is at his best constructing plots of bewildering complexity, he is at his second-best evoking a long-gone time and place, and an ugliness that never went away. Los Angeles at the outbreak of war has an atmosphere both carnivalesque and sinister. In Chinatown we find “[f]ireworks, dragons, heathen babble. . . . Tojo dummies dangled from streetlights. Tong punks swung hatchets at them. Pillow stuffing swirled.” A throng of men lining up to enlist pass around a Japanese flag, taking turns defiling it. Japanese youth are roughed up by the police, though in a James Ellroy novel, “roughed up” can pretty reliably be taken to mean “beaten senseless.”
It is clear that to whatever degree civilization held sway in this American city, its rules are going to be suspended. Racism and xenophobic sentiment are let off the chain, and readers better accustomed to the “microaggression” fixation of our present day may need to scrape their jaws off the floor and rinse out their eyeballs. Acts of violence leave their stains and teeth, it seems, on every other page. A knock-down drag-out fight between two officers of the law is one of the book’s most memorable scenes. All this violence works, in the sense of being plausible, compelling, and nauseating, because of Ellroy’s famous, or notorious, style. It is forever being compared to telegrams and gunfire, but to these ears it sounds like the furious clack and clatter of well-oiled typewriter keys.
As a true master of crime fiction, and one who makes that genre designation superfluous, Ellroy boasts a Batman-like origin story. His mother was brutally murdered when he was a child. He recently told an interviewer, “After my mother was killed, my father gave me The Badge, a book by actor Jack Webb, who wrote about L.A. crime cases that had been too gruesome for Dragnet, his TV show. I guess my dad gave me the book so I’d realize that what had happened to my mother went on all the time.”
Evil is all around us, and we must fight it or succumb to it. “War gives men a plain-and-simple something to do,” Ellroy writes in Perfidia. Make that menand women, given the starring roles and outsize personalities that Ellroy reserves for members of the fairer sex, but the point is well taken. The question for each man and woman is: Will his plain-and-simple something increase or diminish the evil in the world? Will he seek to exploit, profit, cover his ass, or to align himself with goodness?
Ellroy gives us few, if any, characters that one could call good guys, but his tour through the malebolge of greed, hatred, vice, and violence is in some sense an advertisement for their opposites. By showing us what pits men fall into, Ellroy offers us a rough map to our better angels.
Where Perfidia presents a country steeling itself for war, Adam Foulds’s In the Wolf’s Mouth unfolds primarily in a place already streamrolled by it, and now trying to collect the pieces. That place is Sicily in the wake of the Allied invasion, known as Operation Husky, that retook it from the Axis powers. Earlier parts of the book are set in North Africa in 1942 and Sicily in 1926. The reason for the latter peep into the past is to show Sicily in the claws of mafiosi, who waited in the wings to reclaim their turf following Allied defascistification. Foulds vividly illustrates the challenges in store for a war-torn country even after hostilities have ceased. In that regard, his book is a powerful comment on today’s conflicts.
In 1926, as the book opens, a Sicilian shepherd named Angilù is being bound and robbed of sheep by agents of Cirò Albanese, the mafioso landlord of the estate where Angilù tends his flock. Thieves return on a subsequent night, and Angilù reluctantly kills one of them. When he goes to inform Albanese, he encounters the local Prince, who, in a fairy-tale reversal of fortune, appoints him landlord. Albanese, we soon learn, is being smuggled to the United States on a ship, inside of a coffin—heavy-handed symbolism, as he is also abandoning his wife to believe herself a widow. Mussolini is in power. Organized crime is no longer welcome as a competitor to the Fascist regime.
From there, the narrative shifts to Operation Torch, the Allied campaign in North Africa. We follow impossibly young and naïve soldiers through the desert, and often to their graves, some strewn upon the sand with “a red foam of blood” encircling their gaping mouths, and others “[thumped] . . . to pieces” by artillery shells.
In Sicily, an Italian-American soldier sees his friend reduced to disjecta membra by a land mine. He is driven half-mad and ends up sheltering in the attic of a palace, which he compulsively searches for explosive devices. A British Field Security Officer divides his time between reading Lucretius or The Wind in the Willows and trying to make sense of his new Sicilian posting. Albanese, having returned to Sicily with the Allies as a sort of expert or attaché, confronts the problem of his wife’s new husband and child.
Despite its carefully observed take on the Sisyphean task of rebuilding and transforming a postwar social order, it is hard to call In the Wolf’s Mouth a powerful book. It is certainly an engaging one, an instructive one, but its most fleshed-out characters feel too familiar, and its minor ones like little more than puzzle pieces. The soldier, just a poor boy from Little Italy, dreams of being a big-time Hollywood filmmaker. Until his shattering trauma, he sees things in simplistic, cinematic terms. The FSO, swollen with overweening ambition, embarrasses himself by trying to use his father’s World War I record to his own advantage. The Prince’s avuncular concern for Angilù, the simple, sheep-loving rustic, masks what we may assume is a Machiavellian streak. Cirò Albanese oughta be in gangster pictures. And so forth.
These characters, though Foulds does a serviceable job of giving them life, sometimes feel as though they exist not to breathe and bleed as real human beings but to teach the reader things about the Way the World Works. In the Wolf’s Mouth is an eminently teachable book. Foulds’s prose is simple but beautiful, and he describes combat in a way that is frightening and exhilarating without being lurid. (When Ray sees his friend “jump up into the air and apart in pieces,” we experience the confusion—why is he jumping?—and realization at exactly the pace Ray would.) He also keeps in the forefront of the reader’s mind the youth of so many of these combatants:
The bubbles in the window filled him, even before he’d gone, with a large nostalgia for this house and the landscape and his childhood. It was poetical at first but gradually he became aware of a dark outline around that feeling, a constriction, and realised that it was fear. His life, unexciting as it may have been so far, was still a detailed, complicated thing. In its own way, for him, it was precious. It would be a lot to lose.
In the course of Martin Amis’s long career, he has made efforts to comprehend those twin catastrophes of the twentieth century: Nazism and Communism. He addressed the former in his 2000 memoir Experience, which includes an account of his trip to Auschwitz, and in his 1991 novel Time’s Arrow: Or the Nature of the Offence, which narrates in reverse the life of a Nazi camp doctor modeled on Josef Mengele. He took on the atrocities of Communism in his 2002 study of Stalin, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, and again in his 2006 novel House of Meetings, about a love triangle in a Soviet gulag. Love Amis or hate him, one cannot say that he often wastes his readers’ time on trivial subjects.
Amis’s ambition, his helpless desire to grasp the ungraspable, may invite the accusation of hubris, or even encourage an impulse to chop him down to size. In September, the New York Times reported on Amis’s difficulty finding publishers in France and Germany for his new novel, The Zone of Interest. Major French and German houses offered rationales for their lack of interest that were reasonable—“wasn’t very convincing” or “inconsistencies in the plot”—but which seem like excuses in light of Amis’s international renown and Zone’s positive critical reception in the United States.
Might it be that Amis’s project, to write a serious Holocaust novel that nevertheless has comic and romantic undertones, seemed too impertinent or sacrilegious to reward?
The Zone of Interest is set in Auschwitz, but an Auschwitz defamiliarized in subtle ways. For one, the name is never used: The camp is only ever called the Kat Zet or KZ, short for Konzentrationslager. The “zone of interest” is the area surrounding the camp and also—poorly, we gather—disguising its purpose from the neighboring population. For another, Hitler is never named, only referred to obliquely with words like “chief.” For still another, the book’s focus on the personal lives of Nazis is not one to which many readers are accustomed. The Nazis’ language, replete with euphemisms—“transport” and “evacuees” stand in, early on, for cattle cars and terrified prisoners—forces the reader to “translate” on the fly.
All of this strangeness heightens the horror. This is Auschwitz through the looking glass, a distorted, monstrous perspective from which we would just as soon not see the infamous death camp. This is not to say that Amis is first to this approach, of course, and for many readers and critics, even the sympathetic ones, a question asserts itself: Is there anything new to do with this material? Is there anything of value left to say?
In Ruth Franklin’s wonderfully informed review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, she contends that “it is harder now than it has ever been to write a novel about the Holocaust. Fiction grows out of hypotheticals . . . when so much is known, what remains?” Zone, in her view, “offers no new insights into questions that [David Rousset, Paul Celan, and Primo Levi] have more thoughtfully examined.” This criticism issues from what is either too narrow or too demanding a conception of what the “Holocaust novel” owes to its readers: Questions. Answers. Philosophical novelty (might evil, pace Hannah Arendt, not be banal?). Something to say. But memorable characters—the inexhaustible variety of human beings and how they act—more than suffice in the absence of something new to say.
We do not mourn the extermination of six million people or contemplate, with horror and sorrow, the moral dereliction of a whole nation because these events created an insoluble riddle. We do it because they involved people just like us. Imagining how they lived and died is a worthy enough project for fiction.
Zone, like Perfidia, is told by alternating narrators. Golo Thomsen is an official at the IG Farben Buna-Werke, a facility at the camp where prisoners slave away at the production of synthetic rubber and fuel; he is also the nephew of a high-level Nazi. Paul Doll is the camp commandant, an alcoholic—he is nicknamed “the Old Boozer”—who commands little respect and is despised by his wife, Hannah, with whom Thomsen is in love. Indeed, Doll so jealously guards the little respect he commands that when his wife gives him two black eyes, he blames it on his gardener and has the man “removed.” The gardener’s parting act is to bludgeon the pet turtle kept by Doll’s children, an unforgettable detail that turns a minor character into a minor hero.
The third narrator, Szmul, is a member of a Sonderkommando, a work detail made up of Jewish prisoners forced to assist in the disposal of the murdered. Doll on his “Sonders” is sickening: “It’s in their interests that things should go smoothly and briskly, because they’re impatient to rifle through the discarded clothes and sniff out something to drink or smoke. Or something to eat. They are always eating . . . . They’ll sit spooning up their soup on a stack of Stüke [corpses]; they’ll wade knee deep through the mephitic meadow whilst munching on a hunk of ham.” AsGeheimnistragere, “bearers of secrets,” these Sonders are routinely killed and replaced. But Szmul, whom Doll has misjudged as little better than a self-preserving animal, seeks to preserve the secrets that burden him.
Zone does not have a plot so much as a concatenation of incidents. Some of these are related to the entirely hypothetical, but nevertheless dangerous, affair between Thomsen and Hannah Doll. As they interact by way of illicit messages, we come to find out that the last man Hannah loved before her marriage to Doll came, thanks to Doll, to a very bad end. We learn, too, that Hannah seeks to drive her husband mad, and that Thomsen wants in modest ways to sabotage the Nazi war effort. Neither is able, ultimately, to have much of an effect, but they become fractionally less abominable in the reader’s eyes.
Much has been made of Amis’s “humor,” but Zone possesses a sense of the absurd, not of the strictly comic. In one of Zone’s blackest moments, and what is doubtless a nod to Joseph Heller, Doll is caught between the need to keep the camp’s massive piles of corpses burning continuously and complaints from military officialdom that these fires are visible to enemy aircraft. One does not laugh at this. One realizes, queasily, that it is plausible. Making sense of the implications of such barbarism may well be impossible, but give Amis his due for not throwing up his hands at the task. He is, as he says of Primo Levi in his Afterword, “lifting the pressure off the why, and so pointing a way in.”
On the subject of the Holocaust, Amis is, as Ruth Franklin pointed out, no Primo Levi—how could he be?—but at least he knows his limitations. Much of his Afterword is spent honoring an enormous debt to the writers and survivors whose work he drew upon. Compare that with Denis Johnson, who, while his new novel The Laughing Monsters was still in progress, told the Yale Literary Review, “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.’”
Maybe Johnson was joking. It did not help matters that, when prompted to recommend some of Greene’s finest novels, he reduced The Human Factor (1978) to “a sad spy story” and then, having suggested A Burnt-Out Case (1960), Greene’s lacerating portrait of anhedonia and despair, asked, “Or is it ‘Burned-Out’?” Surely the actual Greene would know. Greene referred to his most trivial works as “entertainments,” but he would never have characterized his masterpieces as products of “what we might call serious intentions.” He did not sit down and will himself to think deep thoughts, though he may at times have attempted to put them aside. Johnson does not seem to understand the difference.
That said, The Laughing Monsters is not a bad book. It is entertaining, smartly paced, and evocative of its African setting. It simply never feels like an ambitious book, let alone an especially serious one. It is, because it is by Denis Johnson, vastly better written than an airport thriller, but its characters are not much more three-dimensional than, say, Adam Foulds’s. Since it has no wish to be perceived as a thriller, its action is fairly subdued—a barfight here, an exploding car there, but not on every page or anything. If Johnson’s last foray into writing about a conflict zone, 2007’s messy but engrossing Tree of Smoke, succeeded by making the reader think about what lies behind the veil of civilization, The Laughing Monsters fails by keeping the reader’s thoughts firmly on the surface of things.
At the novel’s outset, a man named Roland Nair has arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to meet his old friend Michael Adriko. This is not Nair’s first time in Freetown, which, given that he is a Scandinavian with a United States passport and a beard for disguise, provides a clue as to the kind of context in which the two men know each other. Both are revealed to be opportunists, mercenaries of one kind or another—though not without their connections to established military and intelligence outfits—and Adriko wants to recruit Nair for a rather doubtful scheme involving the sale of fissile materials.
“Do you want a plan? I’m just going to give you results. You’ll live like a king. A compound by the beach. Fifty men with AKs to guard you. The villagers come to you for everything. They bring their daughters, twelve years old—virgins, Nair, no AIDS from these girls. You’ll have a new one every night. Five hundred men in your militia. You know you want it.”
This may be cribbed rather shamelessly from Joseph Conrad, but Adriko, despite being a civil war orphan with blood on his hands, is no Kurtz. He is something of a lovable buffoon, flashily dressed (“a two-piece jogging suit of royal purple velour,” in one scene), terrible at lying, and optimistic to a fault. He has brought along his American fiancée, Davidia St. Claire, with whom Nair promptly and predictably falls in love. This love triangle does little to raise the novel’s emotional stakes, however, because Johnson shows us nothing about Davidia, save that she looks really, really good. The possibility that Nair might want her merely because she belongs to his friend is too much of a cliché to bother discussing.
As in Perfidia, the plot proceeds by tracking shifting alliances and conflicting wills. It also leads us deeper and deeper into Africa, and it may be as an example of travel writing that The Laughing Monsters truly excels. Johnson traveled to Arua, Uganda, to “[gather] background—local color, sights and sounds” for his book, and The Laughing Monsters is full of details that feel reported rather than imagined: the violently careening vehicles with SPLENDID DRIVING SCHOOL emblazoned on their doors; the young prostitute, “born in the bush,” with “a navel the size of a walnut”; the bar that plays a single Nat King Cole song on endless repeat; the liquor sold in plastic bags with which Nair self-medicates.
That much of Africa is in turmoil, and that First World machinations have contributed to keeping it that way, are nominal lessons of The Laughing Monsters. A more valuable theme is suggested by the book’s title, which refers to a mountain range but may as well refer to men like Michael Adriko, who thrive on the kinds of folly, danger, and violence that utopians believe mankind will grow out of. But the most important thing Johnson tells us, he does by omission. As B. R. Myers wrote of Tree of Smoke, “Johnson cannot comprehend the spiritual dimension of people’s lives, a dimension that, as the adage about foxholes reminds us, takes on more and not less importance during a war.” Johnson believes that he is in Graham Greene’s league because he can write a “burned-out” character who says “all the things you can’t say” to a prostitute who speaks no English. Johnson has no idea that what people read Greene for is, not coincidentally, the only thing that gets people through the furnace of war—a feeble, unreliable, but finally salvific sense of the transcendent.