Is Francine Prose just monkeying around? Is she taking a comic break after the much weightier exploration of creeping xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and right-wing proto-fascism in her last novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932?
Mister Monkey, her 22nd book of fiction, is a dark comedy about the mainly sad, disappointing lives of everyone involved in a woeful way-off-Broadway revival of a painfully bad musical based on a made-up classic children's book called Mister Monkey — itself an unlikely success — written by a Vietnam veteran.
Both the musical and the children's book are about a rambunctious chimpanzee whose parents are killed by evil poachers — as is the primate biologist who had come to the African jungle to study and protect them. The orphaned monkey is "rescued" and taken to live in New York City with the scientist's widower and children.
Like Curious George, another vaguely imperialist children's classic — which Prose refers to frequently — the simian hero of Mister Monkey gets into trouble in his new urban environment. The high-spirited chimp likes to pickpocket people's wallets as a party trick, though he always returns them. But he's hauled off to jail when his human father's nasty girlfriend accuses him of theft. The family hires a lawyer named Portia to defend Mister Monkey, and ... well, I'll let you find out.
Pretty inane, right? What's remarkable is how much wit and pathos Prose manages to wring from this wildly unpromising jumping-off point. It brings to mind a graduate school writing teacher who challenged students to fabricate an interesting story about, say, an orthodontist. Prose's novel could be a lesson in point: Handled with imagination and élan, almost anything can be turned into compelling literature.
That said, I can't pretend that I was as taken with all the monkey business and washed up theater people in Prose's latest as with her virtuoso portrait of pre-Occupation Paris in Chameleon Club. Or her scathing take on campus political correctness in Blue Angel.
But what Mister Monkey shares with Prose's previous novels is her considerable talent for ventriloquy: She is the Meryl Streep of literary fiction, convincingly shifting between multiple voices and points of view — not just from book to book, but within a single work.
The novel begins on a high note with Margot, a Yale drama school graduate who dreams of Chekhov but finds herself, at 44, playing a monkey's defending attorney in a rainbow Harpo wig and an iridescent purple skirt that only add to her humiliation.
Twisting her narrative kaleidoscope, Prose rearranges the perspective as, chapter by chapter, she channels various members of the cast, audience, and more tangentially connected people — like the outspoken kindergartner who mortifyingly chooses an unfortunate moment of silence during a disastrous matinee performance to ask in a piping voice, "Grandpa, are you interested in this?" The boy's grandfather, heartbroken at his recent losses — of his wife and his job as an art museum curator — is keen on anything that brings him closer to his grandson. Privately, he thinks, "How could anyone not have been interested in that cast and their manic desperation?" It's a reaction clearly shared by Prose, who was stimulated to write this book after her granddaughter asked the same question at a similarly tattered children's production.
The novel unfolds like a well-timed relay race, passing the narrative baton from one character to the next. But despite several unpredictable turns, it feels somewhat formulaic after a few chapters; we sense the chugging effort to keep it rolling. There are sendups of a Park Slope dinner party among overworked parents obsessed with their children, and a Brooklyn public school kindergarten class in which a sweet but inexperienced Teach for America novice finds herself in hot water after two boys veer into the off-limits subject of evolution after a show-and-tell about Mister Monkey. There's a first date from hell at a famous mob-connected red-sauce Italian restaurant, which spurs several witnesses — including a homely, lonely waiter -- to make significant changes in their lives.
Through it all, Prose targets political correctness (a longtime favorite punching bag) and the obnoxiousness of cellphones. But the unifying thread is sadness stemming from disappointment — that insidious poacher in the jungle of life. Prose puts her sympathetic sad sacks through their paces with the methodic precision of a well-rehearsed circus act. The question is not whether they'll land on their feet, but how.