Thursday, September 6, 2018

What did the book club think? - Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose

What did the book club think? - Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose

This month Jen picked Francine Prose's most recent novel, about a not-very-good theatrical production of Mister Monkey, adapted from a beloved children's book. The story jumps perspective from character to character, as we jump from actor to director to costume designer to author to, well, waiter in the restaurant where the author eats. He's actually quite the fan!

This was a left-field pick for the group. It doesn't play with genre too much, and there might not be enough escapism to call it cerebral escapism. That said, the conversation went well.

I've read a lot of Francine Prose over the years, having read at least four of her novels (Household Saints, Hunters and Gatherers, A Changed Man, and Goldengrove, and two others sound familiar and my list is filed away and I'm too lazy to double check) and a collection of stories (Women and Children First). When I looked up her bibliography, I realized that's still a tiny fraction of her work. In addition, while I did not read Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, we had a great read in house and one of my sisters talked to me quite a bit about the book, so there's that. Back in the day when I would read 8-10 books a month, I used to rank my reading and I remember Women and Children First was my #1 book for the month. A Changed Man, which is sort of a fictionalized version of Arno Michaelis, pre Arno Michaelis, might have been #1 as well.

In a lot of ways, Mister Monkey hearkens back to her contemporary novels (so not so much Lovers or Goldengrove). Prose has a pointed take on contemporary culture and issues. What was once an adult story about a Vietnam veteran bringing a monkey back to a poor Latino family became a children's story - it was the poachers, not the war, that led to Mister Monkey (the character, not the story) coming to New York, where he settled with a wealthy white family. Contemporary interpretation gives the story imperialist overtones, a la Curious George and Babar.

By changing the perspective in each character, you might think this was a novel in stories, but despite each character's perspective being fully fleshed out, the tales are too intrinsically tied together to work independently. I was hard pressed to imagine Mister Monkey being having its genesis as a story. If Prose was here, I would have asked her which perspective came first.

The plot is sort of kicked off by an incident at one of the performances, where a little boy throws off the rhythm of the play by asking his grandfather if he was enjoying the show, loudly, during the performance. Margot drops her cell phone during a key scene, and Mister Monkey jumps into her arms and well, has an adolescent-style reaction. Then the boy causes problems at his school, when he gets fixated on Mister Monkey and evolution, which is clearly not addressed in the show, as the playwright who adapted the story is an Evangelical Christian.

Here are the chapter perspectives:
1. Margot (the lawyer)
2. Adam (the monkey)
3. The Grandfather (attending the performance)
4. Edward (the grandson, attending the performance)
5. Miss Sonya (Edward's teacher)
6. Ray (the author of the book)
7. Mario (the waiter at a restaurant where both Miss Sonya and Ray have dinner)
8. Lakshmi (the costume designer)
9. Eleanor (the show's villain)
10. The Monkey God (the real Mister Monkey)
11. Roger (the director)

Many of the protagonists are support players in other chapters. We see a really bad blind date from at least three different perspectives. You can't help but laugh when Miss Sonya learns the truth about her icky environmental lawyer dinner partner. But then you think, maybe he has a point?

The order of the stories is very important. We liked how much everyone disliked the monkey-averse matron, because, well, she was the villainess (despite being a nurse in real life, a profession that tends to be viewed quite positively), and we had to upend our expectations when we read her story. I think this graying of characters (as opposed to black-and-white assumptions) is something that runs through Prose's work, from what I remember.

In terms of positioning, several questioned why Prose made the Monkey God the next to the last chapter. We all agreed it might have been better to have that chapter come at the end, pulling the story out of the ordinary. It was jarring enough, but to have it crash back, only to have an open-ended narrative regarding three of the characters.

Based on the paperback cover treatment (all type, no monkey), I'm wondering if the publisher had trouble positioning the story. I am reminded of Don Lee's Lonesome Lies Before Us, another funny-sad story, which has yet to have a paperback publication scheduled. I'm not sure why they just didn't keep the hardcover jacket. I think perhaps a cartoony cover might have worked, much like the hardcover jacket, but maybe with additional characters. Maybe not. 

I guess I detoured to Don Lee because Prose reminds me of Lee in her humor. It's intellectually funny, something that might, and I say this again and again, might be more appreciated if she were English. Take that New York Times quote from Catherine Schine: "It's that funny. It's that sad." The reviews are truly amazing, and take up multiple pages at the front of the paperback edition.

If you find Mister Monkey intriguing, I might recommend Lives of the Circus Animals, a novel from Christopher Bram that sometimes shows up on my rec shelf. It's also about theater in New York, also has multiple character perspectives, and also has a funny sad vibe.

Next up for the Books and Beer Book Club is Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughan. It won the Philip K. Dick Award - join them Monday, September 17, 7 pm, at Downer Avenue's Cafe Hollander. Enjoy your discussion with a glass of beer or wine! Visit our Boswell-run book clubs page for future dates for the rest of our upcoming book club discussions.

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