Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Jane Charlotte works for The Department of Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons, a division of a nameless organization dedicated to fighting evil. The nickname for her division is Bad Monkeys, and at the beginning of Matt Ruff's novel of the same name, Jane is being questioned by a police psychiatrist regarding her involvement in a recent murder. When asked if she punishes evil people, Jane responds glibly, "No. Usually we just kill them." But the victim in question wasn't evil and ensuing interrogation traces Jane's recruitment into the organization and the body count she's accumulated along the way.
Matt Ruff is the kind of author who has yet to write the same book twice. While I was not a fan of his debut novel Fool on the Hill, I was quite impressed with both of his subsequent novels: the Edward Abbey-meets-Ayn Rand-via-Thomas Pynchon flavored Sewer, Gas and Electric, and the achingly stirring tale of multiple personality disorder Set This House in Order. Both are books that I've recommended without hesitation in the past and I'm happy to report that Bad Monkeys can be similarly endorsed.
Bad Monkeys inhabits the same literary space as the drug-fueled paranoia of Philip K. Dick, owing a particular debt to Minority Report. In that story, the protagonist is a detective in a division of the police department that investigates what are called "pre-cog" crimes, arresting perpetrators before they have a chance to act on their impulses. In Ruff's universe, it's not a matter of seeing the future as much as handicapping it, singling out bad seeds and eradicating them. It's not about justice; it's about, as one the Bad Monkeys operatives puts it, "fighting evil in all its forms." Bad Monkeys is an intriguing exploration of moral relativism set in a plot so labyrinthine that it could have sprung from the mind of Borges if he wrote screenplays for Michael Bay. Often the lines between heroes and villains are blurred, and the organization, which is ostensibly fighting for good, engages in surveillance so ubiquitous and undetectable that Alberto Gonzales would be green with envy. And, there is never any explanation as to who charges the Bad Monkeys with their tasks or gave them a license to kill. It's a shadow organization whose umbra gets murkier the longer Jane works for them.
But ultimately, as Jane is being interrogated, her reliability as a narrator is called into question as the psychiatrist presents evidence that refutes her testimony. Ruff throws the reader some astounding curveballs, often necessitating the need to re-read and re-re-read some passages to make tentative sense of what's going on. In this way, Bad Monkeys pleasingly resembles cinematic brain corkscrews such as Memento and The Usual Suspects.
There was a review published recently in Bookforum about Bad Monkeys that not only gave away all of the plot surprises, but was fairly mean-spirited as well, stating, "I give away the surprise ending because I doubt anyone who reads this review will read Bad Monkeys." He then chides the author for not being Nabokov. Maybe I'm just another Kool-Aid drinker, or maybe this Bookforum critic is an irredeemable curmudgeon, but I don't think that's what Ruff was striving for. Rather, he's trying his hand at the pulp genre, writing a book that is practically begging to be turned into a film. Maybe that's a bad thing to some folks. But with a beguiling storyline and taut pacing, Bad Monkeys may not be Nabokov, but it is one hundred percent Matt Ruff. That alone makes it worth recommending.