Bad Monkeys
by Matt Ruff

by Ted Gioia

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, T
he 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

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.

This review originally appeared on
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