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Book Review: Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff

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Imagine a novel that moves ahead with the crazy, unhinged energy of a video game. Imagine a story with more plot twists than a whole season of Lost episodes. Imagine a style of fiction writing that puts Joyce and Faulkner on the back shelf, finding inspiration instead in comic books, The Matrix movies, and bad acid trips.

No, don’t bother imagining it. Just pick up a Matt Ruff novel. Let’s be honest: subtlety is not Ruff’s long suit. His first novel, The Fool on the Hill, was just your typical college novel (set on the Cornell campus)… well, typical except for a cast of characters that included telepathic animals, elves, evil rats, dragons and a pagan deity. In his follow-up effort, Sewer, Gas & Electric, Ruff actually brings Ayn Rand back to life, and holds her spirit captive in a hurricane lamp. Can you say “Atlas Unplugged”?

But how do you top this? Do we even want to? Well Ruff gives it a go in Bad Monkeys. Here is a classic battle between Good and Evil (I told you Ruff is not much for subtlety) as told by Jane Charlotte, currently in the psychiatric ward of a Las Vegas jail, where she is held on murder charges. But is she really Jane Charlotte? Is this really a jail? Can you believe anything she is saying? Is she really crazy?

Certainly her story is crazy enough, as Charlotte recounts it to Dr. Richard Vale, a charming man in a white coat who listens attentively and occasionally points out inconsistencies and implausible details. In fact, her whole story is rather implausible. Charlotte claims to be a member of a secret organization devoted to the elimination of Evil (with a capital ‘E’). She describes her recruitment and training, her weapons and missions, and the structure of her secret society – with its peculiar sub-departments known as Bad Monkeys, Scary Clowns, Random Acts of Kindness and other equally intriguing appellations.

But this story gets wilder and wilder. Along the way, we deal with serial killers, cryogenics, staged UFO abductions, winning lottery tickets, magical guns, secret messages transmitted through crossword puzzles, and a super-duper class of narcotics known as X-drugs. The plot never lags, and the sheer energy of the storyline is a marvel.

Ruff’s prose is perky and sometimes amusing, but rarely flashy. In short, the writing doesn’t get in the way of the unfolding tale. Yet, despite the comic book elements in the story, the narrative structure is not without its complexities. Jane Charlotte may be an unreliable narrator, and the question of Truth (again with a capital ‘T’) becomes as problematic as the supposed opposition between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ that drives the plot. Ruff is especially effective at creating an aura of mystery that constantly hints at a story behind the story.

Novels with manic plots often collapse at their conclusion. But Ruff keeps some of his best stuff for the end. The final pages deliver several more surprising twists, and the conclusion is quite satisfying. I’m not sure that Ruff ties up all of the loose ends — in a story of this sort that may not be possible — but he makes a valiant effort.

The Pulitzer committee will probably overlook this novel when they announce their nominations for the year. Books about Scary Clowns and Bad Monkeys rarely receive major awards. But Hollywood is probably paying attention. And the video game won’t be far behind. But this book will also have staying power, and should further expand Ruff's cult following.

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About Ted Gioia

  • Garbiel

    thanks for the review. I enjoyed the book but I am not sure I agree with you about the end of the book. I think for any reader that part of the book is either love it or hate it. I read several reviews about this book and the end if often quoted as the weakest part of it (for instance this one ), if i were Matt Ruff I would take that as a suggestion for my next book.

    thanks anyway for the interesting review

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!