Bad Monkeys
Matt Ruff
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Buy *Bad Monkeys* by Matt Ruff

Bad Monkeys
Matt Ruff
256 pages
August 2008
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Jane Charlotte has been arrested for the murder of a man named Dixon.  When she reveals to the arresting officer her secret identity and role in Bad Monkeys, a secret organization devoted to fighting Evil, she is sent to the psychiatric unit of the Las Vegas Clark County Detention unit. There she tells Dr. Vale her life story, a curious tale filled with improbable characters and events. Underneath the fanciful armature are darker undercurrents of emotional scars, abuse, and the tragic loss of a younger brother for whom Jane was to care while their mother worked two jobs. Given these glimmers, one wonders whether Jane's story might be a clever coping defense mechanism. The story, written in the form of a transcript of sessions between Vale and Jane, offers no easy or clear answers, presenting instead mind-bending twists and turns that may leave readers unfamiliar with the particular genre reeling in confusion.

Jane's story and her first encounter with the secret evil-fighting organization begin in her teens, when she becomes certain that the Angel of Death, a serial killer targeting young boys in a sleepy California town of Siesta Corta, is none other than her high school's janitor. As is the case in many psychological thrillers where the perception of reality of the protagonist is in question, eventual involvement of police officers only makes Jane look bad. By the time the officers are done examining the “evidence,” the janitor looks more and more like a victim of a vicious prank, and Jane is lucky to get off with a warning, thanks to the janitor's magnanimous decision not to press charges. Did she imagine connections that weren't there, or is the serial killer merely playing a game with her?

Some time after the incident, the janitor inexplicably skips town - and the children, they, too, stop disappearing. This turn of events convinces Jane that she was right all along and that the janitor was indeed the killer, but she can do nothing now; he is already somewhere else, preying on new victims. Yet the janitor is closer than she imagines, returning to pay her a visit one evening while her aunt and uncle are gone. Fortunately, the evil-fighting organization sends her a warning in the form of a hidden-message crossword puzzle: LOOK UNDER THE SINK. She does, and bundled in a potato sack she finds a gun.

Not just any gun, of course; Jane finds a ray gun, one of the many fantastic elements in the story. With that fantastic ray gun she kills the janitor; apparently the gun can induce heart attacks and strokes. Suddenly exhausted, she takes a nap, hiding her magical weapon under the pillow. When she wakes up, the ray gun is long gone. Was it all a dream? Dr. Vale certainly thinks so.

So much for her first encounter with the Bad Monkeys squad, or The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons - the secret, all-seeing, all-pervasive organization dedicated to fighting Evil.

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Vale has a hard time believing Jane. He confronts her with evidence that points to somewhat different interpretation of the same events, but she dismisses the apparent inconsistencies as the Nod problem, proceeding to reveal more about the inner workings of the secret organization as well as the existence of another group known as The Troop dedicated, of course, to the spreading of Evil.

Bad Monkeys is a taut psychological thriller that deals with the theme of good and evil in a mind-bending fashion. Like any good psychological thriller, the book delves into the perception of reality on the part of the protagonist. Since the protagonist is an Evil fighter, her perceptions of good and evil take center stage, leading to whether Jane is good or evil. This is where Dixon comes in — his job is to assess whether Jane is herself a bad monkey.

But Jane's story is difficult to interpret because of the multiplicity of interpretations that the facts she presents allow. Whether the secret evil-fighting organization is a figment of her delusions, a coping mechanism for the guilt that she feels about what happened to her brother, or the revelation of a hidden but true aspect of reality is, therefore, always up in the air.

Ruff is teasing the reader, of course, suggesting that the reader's inability to comprehend the apparent inconsistencies in Jane's story is a version of the Nod problem—inconsistencies exist in any story and therefore provide ammunition to anyone who a priori does not believe it. This is both good and bad: good for the reader who loves to question perception and knowing, bad for one who wants to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. Ruff is working to get us to think about the nature of reality, which can't be done without examining the nature of perception. How and why do we perceive as we do?

Initially highly involving, this tension between the possibilities eventually becomes frustrating and tiresome. The more time we spend with Jane, the more we are pulled into her unreliable point of view without any hope of emerging on solid ground again, moving from what we think is an interview at a county detention facility into fantasy world with seriously absurd elements: Scary Clowns who manipulate reality, posters that contain surveillance equipment, surveillance in underwear ads, and an apparently highly organized operation that, nevertheless, is on constant move from one improbable location to another. Worse, they don't even pay Jane any salary for all her evil-fighting efforts. She lives hand-to-mouth doing menial low-paying jobs and ends up evicted from her apartment. Say what? Then there is the ending: is Jane really who they say she is? There have been so many twists and fake-outs along the way that you're left wondering. By extension, you end up wondering what the difference between good and evil really is - which is what Ruff wanted you to examine all along. Ruff has created a classic here, and it fits comfortably on the shelf among the canon of great sci-fi.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © A. Jurek, 2009

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