Harper Collins, 2007, 230 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-06-124041-6
For readers, paranoia isn’t such a bad trait. Not when dealing with tricky writers such as Matt Ruff, whose unpredictable output continues to surprise even those who think they know what to expect. None of Ruff’s novels so far has been ordinary, and Bad Monkeys is no exception.
Harper Collins, at least, has done a good job designing a physical object that’s as odd as its content. Presented as a narrow yellow trade paperback with extended rounded covers, the book is meant to evoke a psychiatrist’s case jacket, which isn’t a bad choice given the content.
For the novel begins in a white room, a holding cell where a psychiatrist comes in to interview a prisoner. Her name is Jane Charlotte, and she’s been arrested for murder. As she tells her story, we go back in time, to a childhood incident during which she realized the existence of a secret organization manipulating events behind the scenes. And that’s the kick-off to a deeply paranoid novel in which the world we know isn’t as chaotic as we think. There’s a war out there between good and evil, and two rival factions are out there recruiting and setting operatives on each other. The “Bad Monkeys” of the title is a shorthand for the “Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons”, which is to say humans declared so irremediably evil that they have to be taken out —preferably by means of a Natural Causes gun with definitive but undetectable effects. The secret departments of the elusive organization all have bizarre names that allude to their nature (“Scary Clowns”, “Good Samaritans”, “Eyes Only”) but whose true nature remains elusive for a while.
This, of course, may or may not a be a psychotic delusion from a troubled individual. Jane’s life (as she tells it) has been a tough one, and she hasn’t always been the most virtuous of person. Is all of this an elaborate way to account for the murders she’s been arrested for, or is it all true? Or is the truth even stranger than she imagines?
You’re better off betting on strangeness without limits, because Matt Ruff is having a lot of fun messing with his readers’ heads throughout the novel. By the time the final twists are revealed, shell-shocked readers may be forgiven if they can’t recall what’s true and what’s not. Such mind-bending won’t be to everyone’s liking, but it does make for a lively reading experience. There’s a lot of strong scenes, a few Science Fiction elements, some good character moments, and a terrific pacing. From time to time, Ruff plays with intriguing philosophical ideas and concepts given practical form by his secret organizations, from Natural Cause guns to ant farms to Nod problems.
It’s not a particularly long book (barely 90,000 words, by my estimates) and the writing style is deliberately kept simple, so don’t be surprised if you rush through the book in a few sittings. It’s probably best read that way too, in order to fully experience the accumulation of details, confusion and contradictions that make up the novel’s conclusion.
This being said, the rapidly changing nature of the novel is liable to be a point of contention. While a neat writer’s trick, it also prevents readers from forming a deep emotional attachment to the material as presented: nobody likes to be fooled, and so a bit of detachment may be for the best while reading the story. Only the paranoids will get the most out of Bad Monkeys.