Tag Archives: Matt Ruff

Bad Monkeys, Matt Ruff

<em class="BookTitle">Bad Monkeys</em>, Matt Ruff

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.

Sewer, Gas & Electric, Matt Ruff

Warner Aspect, 1997, 560 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60642-1

I staggered in my local SF bookstore and painstakingly made my way to the counter. “Booktender!” I rasped, knocking on the counter. “Give me an antidote to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged!” “Coming up, chief!” he said, sliding a copy of Matt Ruff’s Sewer, Gas & Electric on the counter.

It may be slightly insulting to write about Sewer, Gas and Electric as merely an answer to Rand’s work. But in these days where hundreds of SF books are published per year, everyone needs a hook to attract readers, and Ruff’s second novel does, among other things, offer a compelling counter-point to Ayn Rand’s most celebrated novel.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. While a holographic projection of Rand (stuck in a hurricane lamp, no less) accompanies one of our heroines throughout her adventures, Sewer, Gas and Electric is a full-course weird trip through a future wacky enough to be believable, starring a variety of fantastical characters and quirky concepts. Fans of Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon, take note; giant sewer critters duel for attention with grandiose conspiracy theories in a delicious writing style that’s worth the price of the book by itself.

It’s impossible to reduce Sewer, Gas & Electric to a simple plot description, but that’s just how the book is written. There’s an industrialist named Harry Gant, building a mile-high tower in the middle of New York. There’s an oversized shark—named Meisterbrau- loose in the sewers of the city. There’s an environmental terrorist defying rampant industrialism aboard his polka-dotted yellow submarine. There’s an American Civil War veteran running around. There are black servants called “Negroes”, and no one is offended because the whole black population was wiped out years before by a sudden epidemic. (Is this a “funny background detail”? Don’t bet on it.) There’s what’s probably the funniest submarine battle ever written. There’s a rather more aggressive Queen Elizabeth II. There’s a lot of stuff in these 560 pages.

Make no mistake; it will take you some time to make your way through Sewer, Gas & Electric, if only because this is one of those novels where you’ll want to slow down in order to savor the prose and the weirdness. Ruff isn’t a professional hack content to churn out a novel per year to pay the rent; he’s a real honest-to-goodness author and as far as readers are concerned, this means jolly good fun. A conversation with two possible meanings is one of the comic highlights of the year as far as I’m concerned. (“A thousand ironic… convictions.” See P.306-307, but beware spoilers!) Oh, oh, and don’t forget the “Mr. Science” segment!

It does get less amusing after a while, though. As the plot mechanics (yes there is a plot) get rolling and more serious issues are tackled, the laugh quotient diminishes a lot. The ending isn’t as jolly as you might want, though it remains light throughout.

It’s hard to overstate the joy of reading Sewer, Gas & Electric. It’s the kind of fun novel you don’t see much and treasure forever after. You can make comparisons with Snow Crash or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, but this novel is its own animal in the weird-future subgenre.

What about Ayn Rand, though? Well, she’s a feisty character all right; as one character comments even before encountering her, “Rand’s a total loon—but a fun loon” [P.261]. The novel will be highly pleasant to everyone who was amused by Rand’s works: Not only does Chapter 12 feature a terrific plot summary of Atlas Shrugged, but later on, one of the characters neatly eviscerates Rand’s philosophy in what might best be described as a no-holds barred philosophical argument spectacular.

Naturally, Gas, Sewr & Electric is a lot more fun if you’ve read Atlas Shrugged. But don’t think it’s in any way a requirement; Ruff’s novel stands on its own as a fun novel. I can’t recommend it any strongly.