"The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 16, 2003)
"I dreamt I was a butterfly, and didn't know when I awoke if I was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly, who now dreamt he was a man." - Chuang Tzu's dream, 500 B.C.
This ancient Chinese quote is the essential theme and plot behind David Ambrose's new novel, that is, if you substitute chimpanzee in place of butterfly. And add in a possible third dimension, like maybe, yet another person dreaming the dream. Maybe. Then, again maybe not.
Charlie Monk is a highly trained covert government operative. As the novel opens, we follow Charlie as he executes a James Bond like mission. We also find out that in his down time, he is an artist -- he paints partly abstract landscapes for the sake of painting. Yet, his art must be good enough to sell since an art agent comes by monthly and buys up the latest lot. The third thing we know about Charlie is that he has only one vague memory of his childhood. A girl named Kathy Ryan, a girl he loved. His last memory, really his only memory, was from when they ran away from their orphanages to be alone together and then were caught and separated. It was then that he was sent off to the Farm, some kind of training camp that made him the top operative that he is today.
But oddly, despite this recurrent memory, he has no visual memory of Kathy. At least until one day. Then, while recuperating from a job and working surveillance by posing as an artist on a New England beach, she walks by. And this begins a search that leads him to find out some fairly farfetched things about himself, that is, if it is true.
Dr. Susan Flemying is the other key character to this novel. We first meet her six years earlier in the novel's prologue. She is talking with a middle-aged man named Brian Kay. Twenty years earlier, Brian had a rare viral infection that effected his memory; he can remember everything from before the illness, but not a thing since. In fact, he won't remember the conversation they are having in a matter of moments. Once again, Dr. Flemying is explaining to Brian why he is in the hospital and preparing him for a visit with his now aged wife. Despite the explanation, Brian won't remember and will be shocked (again) by the way his wife looks. But on this day, Dr. Flemying comes up with a new idea to help Brian with this most frustrating part of his memory loss.
So now to present time. Dr. Susan Flemying has just received a telephone call informing her that her husband John will not be returning from Russia - his plane is missing and the worst is feared. She reaches to her father for support and he flies in from Washington, D.C. Together they break the news to her six-year old son Christopher.
Soon after, a freelance reporter contacts Susan to tell her that John Flemying's death was not as accidental as it would appear. That he knows why John died, and in fact, met with him on the last evening of his life. When Susan hears his theory, she writes it off as science fiction hocus-pocus and assumes that this Don Samples is just another paranoid lunatic. But after Samples promises to provide proof and then doesn't get in touch with her again, she decides to confront him, if nothing more than to demand an apology from him. She then learns that Samples is dead from a fall from his eighth-floor apartment. Dr. Flemying decides to visit the site of her husband's plane crash in Russia, after all, a courtesy extended to all widows. What she discovers on this trip puts her squarely in the middle of the conspiracy and, against her will, she crosses paths with Charlie Monk.
And things get very interesting, very fast.
Certainly, this is one of those novels that is best read without really knowing anything more about it accept that it is worth the read. The plot superbly twists and surprises and twists again. Ambrose puts together a story that makes use of and, in a sense, is itself virtual reality. Add to this one possible use of genetic engineering and lots of action from start to finish and out comes a unique, fast-paced and intriguing plot. It's certainly not a character driven novel. In fact, Charlie Monk is almost cookie-cutter perfect as a covert agent. Given this, for the first few chapters I was puzzled as to why this book was so highly recommended, nearly missing that Charlie's discrete charm lies in this stereotypical approach to his character. As I think back on the book and weigh the different possibilities of the meaning of the ending, certainly Charlie's flat character weighs heavily on my internal arguments about which is "real" in this story apart from what is created for Charlie. And just who is Charlie Monk anyway? For that matter what is Dr. Susan Flemying's real role? Every time that I think I have it, that I really get this book and feel comfortable that I understand the ending, I change my mind. And for some reason I am perfectly comfortable with this ambiguity.
Note to self: find and read more David Ambrose novels. This guy plays well with one's mind.
- Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk at MostlyFiction.com
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Man Who Turned Into Himself (1993)
- Mother of God (1995)
- Superstition (1997)
- Hollywood Lies: Stories (1998)
- The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk (2000; March 2003 in US)
- Coincidence (2001; February 2002 in US)
- A Memory of Demons (2003)
(back to top)
- The official Web site for David Ambrose with extracts and reviews
- John Forbes review of Mother of God
- Infinity Plus review of Hollywood Lies
- The BookHaven.net review of Coincidence
- BookReporter.com review of The Discrete Charm of Charlie Monk
(back to top)
About the Author:
David Ambrose began his career as a screenwriter for Orson Welles. He read law at Oxford University and has worked internationally in films, theater, and television.