(Reviewed by Guy Savage NOV 11, 2007)
“You’re a proactive personality,” True said. “When you see a potential threat, you want to eradicate it. That’s a useful instinct in a hunter, and it’s one of the reasons you’re in Bad Monkeys. My desires are a bit different, however. Like you, I want to fight evil, but I want to fight it effectively.”
Matt Ruff’s fourth novel, Bad Monkeys is a genre-bending roller-coaster ride that morphs from an intense, psychological drama to the unpredictable realm of science fiction thriller. This is the sort of book I would gladly read in one sit down session if I hadn’t had to suffer annoying interruptions such as work and sleep. Believe me, this book jumps right into the middle of a gripping story and doesn’t let up until the final page. I always appreciate a novel that grabs me within the first few sentences, and here’s the opening hook that transports the reader into Bad Monkeys:
“It’s a room an uninspired playwright might conjure while staring at a blank page: White walls. White ceiling. White floor. Not featureless, but close enough to raise suspicions that its few contents are crucial to the upcoming drama.”
This opening is deceptively simple, but it’s loaded with hints of what’s in store, and it’s within these few words that Ruff sets the stage for the drama—the fantastic story that begins to unfold from the novel’s protagonist, Jane Charlotte. The novel begins in “the nut wing” of the “Las Vegas Clark County Detention Center with a series of interviews between psychiatrist Dr. Vale and the handcuffed Jane Charlotte. She is there for the murder of a man called Dixon, but Jane claims that she works for a secret organization devoted to crime prevention. According to Jane, she’s an operative for the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons, otherwise known as Bad Monkeys, and her job is to eliminate individuals who are guilty of heinous crimes, but for one reason or another elude normal channels of justice.
Over the course of the first few chapters, Jane tells her story to Dr. Vale, and as he prompts her with the occasional question, a bizarre story unfolds of the secret organization that operates outside of the law enacting final judgment against society’s incorrigibles—the so-called Bad Monkeys. A picture of a highly developed covert organization begins to emerge with the Department of Optimal Utilization of Resources and Personnel (Cost-Benefits), and the “intel-gathering group,” The Department of Ubiquitous Intermittent Surveillance (Panopticon). As Jane tells her strange tale of how she was recruited and trained by the organization, Dr. Vale punches holes in her story. But Jane chalks up such inconsistencies in her story to what she calls the “Nod problem,” and she explains illogicalities this way:
“Cain kills his brother Abel,” she says, “and God sets him wandering in the wilderness as a punishment. Cain ends up in Nod, where he settles and gets married. Which is a problem, logically, because Adam and Eve are supposed to be the first people on earth, and as far as we know, Cain and Abel are their only children. So where did this wife come from?”
The interviews between Vale and Jane continue, and for a large portion of Jane’s story I was convinced I was reading the paranoid fantasies of a severely deranged person. But Vale seems to take Jane seriously. Is he trying to discover inconsistencies in Jane’s story to point out the logical fallacies? Or is there some truth to Jane’s tale?
But just as I’d decided that Bad Monkeys was a psychological drama in which the therapist was in severe danger of becoming seduced by the subject’s delusional fantasies (reminiscent of a segment from Lindner’s The Fifty Minute Hour), the novel assumes shades of Philip K. Dick as the plot enters the realm of science fiction. In these days of increased surveillance, and with the Patriot Act authorizing instances of increased government intrusion into our private lives, Bad Monkeys hit a chord. Just who are the villains and who are the heroes is a question that’s up for debate in this unpredictable, and highly imaginative thriller.
- Amazon readers rating: from 76 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Bad Monkeys at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Fool on the Hill (1988)
- Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1997)
- Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls (2003)
- Bad Monkeys (2007)
- The Mirage (February 2012)
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- The official Web site for Matt Ruff
- SF Site review of Fool on the Hill
- MostlyFiction.com review of Set This House in Order
- The New York Times review of Bad Monkeys
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About the Author:
Matt Ruff was born in 1965 in Queens, New York and grew up in New York City. His father was a hospital chaplain who descended from a line of peaceful Midwestern dairy farmers; his mother was a missionary's daughter who grew up battling snakes and scorpions in the jungles of Brazil. Between the two of them, he received an interesting moral education. He attended Styyvesant High School in Manhattan.
His first novel, Fool on the Hill, was his college thesis at Cornell University. His second novel, Set This House in Order, won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, a Washington State Book Award, and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. He is also the recipient of a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship.
He and his wife, Lisa Gold, live in Seattle, Washington.