Intriguing questions, then ... a baffling splatterfest
Matt Ruff's tour de force 2003 novel, "Set This House in Order," featured two main characters with split personalities. The book, which won...
Seattle Times book editor
Author appearanceMatt Ruff will read from "Bad Monkeys," 7 p.m. Aug. 28, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
Matt Ruff's tour de force 2003 novel, "Set This House in Order," featured two main characters with split personalities. The book, which won the James Tiptree Jr. science fiction/fantasy award, was a Dickensian orphanage full of weird and wonderful alternative consciousnesses — my personal favorite was Malefica, the bad girl who was always chugging hard liquor; grabbing the wheel of a big, big car; and driving her sister personalities down the road into deep, deep trouble.
Seattle author Ruff's new book, "Bad Monkeys" (HarperCollins, 230 pp., $20), has its own split personality. The first half of the book is both a superior imaginative work and a philosophical inquiry, examining the Big Questions via a stable of good, bad and scary characters.
Then the other personality takes hold, as the book falls under the spell of an action-addled narrative point of view. This reader was a big fan of the first personality. The second, not so much.
"Bad Monkeys" opens as main character Jane Charlotte is being questioned by Dr. Vale, who appears to be a police psychotherapist. Jane has done something bad — she's committed murder. She proceeds to tell her story, and her interrogator keeps coming up with documents that contradict it.
Through this maybe/maybe-not storytelling conceit, we learn about Jane's role in the abduction of her younger brother Phil and her banishment from her home afterward. There's an idyllic interlude in a small Southern California town, which ends when Jane discovers that her high school's janitor is abducting and killing young children (and sometimes their dogs).
Many authentic human beings populate this section of the novel — an Officer Friendly who takes an interest in Jane; a long-suffering aunt and uncle who take her in; Carlotta Diaz, the no-nonsense Hispanic teenager who becomes Jane's best pal.
But then things turn surreal. Jane tells Dr. Vale she has been recruited by a secret group called the Bad Monkeys, a counterterrorist unit that tracks down and executes authentically bad people (also called bad monkeys). The Bad Monkeys use bright-orange NC guns (the guns deal death in the form of Natural Causes, such as heart attacks). Jane dispatches the janitor with an NC gun after he appears to her as in a "Matrix"-like vision: "The kitchen filled up with sound and light, so bright that the janitor himself seemed to glow like a real angel, an angel with a flaming dagger in one hand and a sparkling wire halo in the other."
Is Jane truth-telling, hallucinating or prevaricating? It becomes increasingly hard to tell. This part of the novel becomes an extended riff on the question of the nature of evil, and whether it's OK (or not) to fight bad guys with bad guys (albeit ones with good intentions).
"But what if evil was more than just a label for anti-social behavior? What if evil was a real force working in the world, capable of drawing people to its service?" asks Bob True, a "Mission Impossible" type who delivers Jane's instructions and wears "a gray flannel suit that might have been stylish back when Ozzie and Harriet was a hit TV show."
Good question, and there's another: Is Jane an avenging angel, or a revengeful devil?
For a time, the quest for answers to these questions dominates "Bad Monkeys." Then the special effects take over. There are duels with NC guns, and evil people who want to blow up playgrounds (and the kids playing on them). There are scary clowns. There's a cryogenics lab in the desert and a blood-spattered finale in Las Vegas, a scary place all by itself, never mind when it's being trampled and trashed by bad monkeys, and the Bad Monkeys who are chasing the bad monkeys.
I really wanted to discover Jane's true nature, what happened to her brother Phil and the identity of Dr. Vale, her interrogator. But in the end, so much blood was flying, so many punches were being delivered to various vulnerable body parts and so many improbable martial-arts sequences were being orchestrated, I just wanted to wipe the spatter from my spectacles and get out of town.
Has the real Matt Ruff been kidnapped by a bad monkey, one that writes novels hoping they'll get optioned for the movies? Send in the Bad Monkeys and liberate this talented writer, so he can write another wonderful novel with real people (even multiple versions of people) in it.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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