Nine: Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff


Jane Charlotte has been arrested for murder. She claims to be a member of a secret organisation that fights evil, and that she belongs to “the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons” – a.k.a. “Bad Monkeys”. Her story is recounted in an interview with a doctor inside the Clark County Detention Center’s psychiatric wing, and it is one that starts out odd and descends into the outright bizarre. She talks about secret messages in crosswords; guns that look like toys but in fact induce deaths by “natural causes”; tiny cameras hidden everywhere there are images of eyes, providing “ubiquitous intermittent surveillance” that can record everything you’ve ever done wrong.

Starting from a teenage encounter with a possible child murdering janitor, and ending with a reality-bending fight through Las Vegas involving superpowers, evil twins, and well-armed clowns, the book increasingly invites you to disbelieve Jane’s story, going from the unlikely, to the paranoid, and then the irrational. Meanwhile the blanks in Jane’s story are gradually filled in, giving you an alternate picture of her life, one that suggests she is escaping into a fantasy of fighting evil out of guilt. Only in the final pages does the truth come together.

Bad Monkeys is an interesting concept, and Ruff seems to have fun with it, throwing in the stranger and stranger elements just when you start to get used to the last ones. The problem I had with the book was that I could never quite get past the narrative voice – I never believed this could be an actual person talking, narrating their life as part of an interview. In the early parts it felt like Ruff was maybe trying too hard to write Jane sounding like the sassy, smart-mouthed, badass heroine. It improved as it went on, but it’s something that bothered me through most of the book.

The other thing that didn’t quite work for me was the ending. After the way the book goes up to then, you expect some strange revelations and turnarounds, but I think there were maybe a few too many turnarounds crammed into the last few pages just for the sake of keeping you surprised. The book isn’t really a puzzle with the solution at the end, as really it can’t be worked out without that solution – the truth is left too deliberately ambiguous. That the ending could have gone either way without feeling all that much different.

I wouldn’t say Bad Monkeys was a bad book, it just didn’t really live up to my expectations.

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Next week: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

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