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Mister Monkey


Mister Monkey

A novel that casts its gaze on a group of "underpaid, brave, disappointed actors" in the waning days of an off-off-off-off Broadway production of a children's musical about an orphaned monkey transported from Africa to New York City likely won't strike many as the stuff of compelling fiction. But in MISTER MONKEY, her latest novel, Francine Prose transforms that unprepossessing premise into an endearing examination of the indomitability of the human spirit.

The musical portrait of the "smartest, cutest, nicest, strongest, most powerful chimp of all" --- based on an improbably popular novel by a Vietnam War veteran named Raymond Ortiz, who has prospered on the story's enduring appeal --- draws together a motley troupe of performers. Its stars include Margot, a graduate of Yale Drama School whose career has taken her as far as the road company of Wicked and who "still wants the world to know that she is a talented actress," and Eleanor, an ER nurse without similar illusions who's moonlighting as the musical's villain and whose "beliefs have not only made her a better person but also have magically enabled her to have her cake and eat it."

"For all the apparent slightness of its foundation, MISTER MONKEY is a solidly constructed and winning addition to her body of work."

Whether it's the shabby costumes designed by a young woman named Lakshmi, who doubles as a police officer in the play, the vaguely sexual antics of Adam, the 12-year-old gymnast who plays the title character, or the plaintive question ("Grandpa, are you interested in this?") a child poses in a moment of silence during one of the musical's oddball production numbers (including an opener, "Monkey Tango," that's "more like a square dance and just about as sexy"), an aroma of defeat lingers over the production and everyone associated with it.

Prose could have exploited the slapstick humor inherent in this debacle, but she's aiming for more than laughs, even well-earned ones. There's an air of resigned nobility about the way these actors deliver their performances despite the knowledge of their own shortcomings, something that could well describe the way most of us negotiate life's inevitable disappointments. Margot and Eleanor are but two of the characters whose indelibly honest portrayals animate the novel. Prose shifts her point of view no fewer than 11 times, as the narrative proceeds almost in the manner of a relay race, at times giving the novel a feel of linked stories that blend together into a seamless whole.

The theme of thwarted dreams transcends the boundaries of the theater to encompass stories like those of Miss Sonya, a young school teacher teetering on the edge of dismissal after she allows a discussion of evolution to slip into the uninhibited child's show-and-tell presentation about the performance he attended. The restaurant scene of Sonya's first date with a self-absorbed environmental lawyer is a classic that successfully balances on the knife's edge between humor and pathos. Prose artfully links it to the story of Mario, the waiter who witnesses Sonya's humiliation and later is mesmerized by Margot's game performance in the musical.

The spirit of Anton Chekhov hovers over the novel through recurring allusions to his “Uncle Vanya” --- in which Margot played the leading role of Sonya during her drama school days --- but most directly in the form of an excerpt from a letter from that keenly melancholy observer of the human spirit to Maxim Gorky in 1899 that appears in an anonymous note left in Margot's dressing room that sums up the existence of most of the novel's characters: "Failures and disappointments make time go by so fast that you fail to notice your real life, and the past when I was so free seems to belong to someone else, not myself."

In her book READING LIKE A WRITER, Prose explicitly acknowledges her debt to the Russian short story master in a chapter entitled "Learning from Chekhov," observing: "But what Chekhov believed and acted on more than any writer I can think of is that judgment and prejudice were incommensurate with a certain kind of literary art." In the surpassing sympathy she displays for these characters, whose lives might just as easily be the subject of mockery, she demonstrates how fully she has absorbed that lesson.

Francine Prose's long and impressive literary career has been noteworthy for its versatility and range. For all the apparent slightness of its foundation, MISTER MONKEY is a solidly constructed and winning addition to her body of work.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 27, 2016

Mister Monkey
by Francine Prose

  • Publication Date: October 17, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062397842
  • ISBN-13: 9780062397843