Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff

Jonathan Ames of the New York Times Book Review called this: "something of a science fiction Catcher in the Rye" and maybe my problems with the genius author Matt Ruff's latest book starts there. (Maybe henceforth I should avoid all books that are compared to Salinger's classic, as I'm about to review and likewise grumble about Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld which was similarly lauded).

Ruff's Fool on the Hill may be my favorite book of all time. Let me qualify that: there are books that I adore that are "better" books, classics or more likely to become classics. But no book speaks to my sensibilities as a reader more than Ruff's debut novel, Fool. It's magical. It's hilarious. And it's superbly written. Oozes charm. It's like a better-written (sorry mega-fans) Douglas Adams' book only rooted in fantasy rather than sci-fi. In my opinion, though, Ruff's subsequent three books have been increasingly disappointing, and Bad Monkeys, although well-reviewed and prize-winning (2008 PBNA and 2008 Alex winner), felt a little insulting.

This sci-fi thriller mystery is told during a series of therapy sessions while Jane Charlotte is locked up in the Las Vegas County Jail. It traces her journey from her troubled youth to her recruitment and subsequent (maybe) betrayal by the "Bad Monkeys," a code name for a department of a top-secret organization bent on leveling out the playing field between good and evil. Is Jane sane? Is she a mercenary who murders with a gun whose "ammunition" is meant to mimic death by natural causes? Is she absolutely out of her gourd? How could a lunatic craft such a detailed and elaborate life fiction? Why does so little of her story check out? All these questions are presented to Dr Vale, her psychotherapist. But are the answered satisfactorily by the end?

The end. Hmph. The most common complaint on the book's Amazon reviews site (I'm a curmudgeon clearly, the book is averaging 4-stars) is the end. And I admit, while I was disappointed in the whole book, it was the end that made me nuts. I could handle the Shutter Island/Life of Pi level "what's really going on here" type questions. In fact, I love books that leave you wondering. But Monkeys dumps you in the middle of that quandary right away and instead of leaving us wondering, it wrapped things up in, what was in my mind, a ludicrous and unpredictable (in a bad way) way.

It's easier to be disappointed by a writer that you love than a writer you're ambivalent about. One of the things that really burned my buns is that the book is chock-full of the Ruff-ness that I love; the ludicrously clever ideas, the real-as-life dialogue, the Big Thoughts tossed around so casually. But the plot, for me, just didn't hold up.

Read Fool on the Hill instead. I do, about once every two or three years.

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