I was unfamiliar with American author Francine Prose’s work before stumbling on some glowing reviews in the fall for Mister Monkey, her 22nd book of fiction, a brilliant and funny book about the participants in and around the staging of a really terrible musical for children. Prose, whose work outside of writing has created some significant controversy, manages to touch on so many ideas and develop many fascinating characters in under 300 pages of high and low comedy, from the 12-year-old actor in the monkey suit who is growing up too fast to the Yale-educated actress at the end of her rope who has the worst part in the play.
The play is called Mister Monkey, and is based on a not-very-good children’s book by the character Ray Ortiz, whom we’ll meet over the course of Prose’s novel. Ortiz is a Vietnam War veteran who tried to write a book about his experiences there, but it ended up, through the wringer of publishing, a weird children’s book that was subsequently adapted into a bad musical that has become a perennial production, in the way so many mediocre works aimed at children do. This off-off-Broadway staging has more than its share of tragicomic characters and elements, and Prose manages to spin them off into a circle of stories that touch on everything from existential doubt to the fear of romantic rejection. It’s like Pulitzer winner A Visit from the Good Squad, except that it’s good.
The musical itself is all background – we get hints of why it’s so bad, of course, but that’s about all we get, which is probably a small mercy from Prose, who definitely enjoyed making up this artistic monstrosity. Instead it’s the spark that gives us Adam, the child actor who is twelve but looks eight, already knows his stage-mom is not well, and is struggling with the onset of puberty and, among other things, the fact that he has a crush on one of his adult co-stars. And gives us Mario, the server at a Rao’s-like restaurant who always waits on Ray, who goes there every time there’s a new production of Mister Monkey and gives Mario a couple of tickets to the play, because it turns out Mario just loves the theater … and he too develops a crush on the same actress who is the literal and figurative target of Adam’s affections. Everyone’s flawed, but they’re all flawed in entirely credible ways – shy, confused, frustrated, manic, resigned. Only Lakshmi, the costume designer who also plays the police officer in the musical, comes off as less than fully-realized, in part because her story has a bizarre twist that is a forced laugh and doesn’t fit with the rest of who she is.
That laugh stands out because it’s one of the only attempts at humor here that doesn’t land. Mister Monkey is very funny due to Prose’s wry, observational style that lampoons life but usually doesn’t mock its characters. Shifting focus with each long chapter means we get one character’s thoughts on everyone else, only to learn later on that we only had a fraction of the story, and often someone’s difficult or hostile behavior was merely a symptom of a deeper problem. It’s Gibby Haynes’ line, “you never know just how you look through other people’s eyes,” in prose form. (No pun intended, but how can you avoid it with an author named Prose?)
Prose also gives us an unconventional “here’s what happened to all the characters” section at the end that I thought elevated that gambit over the standard epilogue format without becoming excessively sentimental; such sections are always a little bit sappy, because the author obviously cares about her creations and knows the readers will too. In this case, however, she leaves a few of their fates open-ended, hinting at new beginnings as much as she does at new opportunities for disappointment.
And if there’s an overarching theme to all of the interwoven stories of Mister Monkey, that’s it. Everyone in the book is dealing with some sort of disappointment. The realization that the acting career isn’t coming. The loneliness of a lifetime of bachelorhood. The sadness of a widower whose family doesn’t have much time for him. The pathetic acceptance of the unloving boyfriend. They’re all disappointed in life by different things, but their disappointment is what ties them all together – that and a very stupid children’s musical about a monkey who is falsely accused of stealing someone’s wallet.
Next up: I just finished Michael Chabon’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union on the flight home from Arizona last night.