The Short Version: A misfit company of off-off-off-Broadway actors present a treacly children’s musical called Mister Monkey. A child in the audience asks his grandfather: “Are you interested in this?” The novelist who wrote the original book (which was then adapted into this play) considers his life, decades after success. And all the while, the monkey watches…
The Review: My friend and co-host Christopher told me, as he finished this book, that he was reminded of A Visit From the Goon Squad both in structure and aim – except that where Time was the Goon Squad of that novel, Ambition is the ethereal antagonist here. This was ringing in my mind when I picked up the book, and while I’m perhaps a bit more reluctant to agree about the aim (Goon Squad both seeks and achieves a greatness of scope that I don’t think Mister Monkey is as interested in), I have to say that I largely agree.
We begin with Margot, a middle-aged actress who was once the promising young Yale ingenue and who now finds herself rather unhappily stuck in a bad off x3 (or is it 4?) Broadway production of a silly children’s musical. As a one-time actor here in NYC, I understand: I saw those performers, I worked with them, I performed in those dodgy strange theaters that pop up (and often disappear altogether in a few years). In fact, while reading this book (even though Prose directly specifies that the theater is a fictional one over by the High Line), I couldn’t help but think of a space where I produced my first show in New York: the Los Kabayitos Theater. We were all 21-25 when we were working there, but the spirit still felt right.
And that’s what this book does best: it captures spirit(s) in ways that I almost can’t comprehend. Like Goon Squad or (on a larger but perhaps more accurate scale) Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, each chapter peels off and follows a character who was a supporting character in the previous one. So the narration goes from Margot to Adam (the 12-year-old playing the titular monkey) to the grandfather of the boy who spoke up in the crowd to the boy himself – and then, spinning madly outwards even further, to the boy’s teacher and then, through one of those lovely moments of serendipity, to the author of the children’s book that inspired the play, because he happened to be having dinner at the same restaurant as the boy’s teacher. The connections do not feel overdone or contrived; instead, they feel like the perfect representation of the magic of New York City. It would seem impossible to be able to find people in this town, but I ran into my best friend outside of Strand on Inauguration Day at a moment when we were both supposed to be places that we weren’t. What are the chances that we would be there, at that time, together? All one can say is, “That’s New York.”
Each of the characters in this book feels real, even when they serve the function of something a bit satirical (the boy Edward and his parents and the ritzy-sketchy school he was attending before coming to public school, for example). It feels as though you could be walking down the street and bump into them or see them catching a bus or coming out of a coffee shop. They are familiar strangers – and not just because they all feel like the people you might see on a New York City sidewalk. They have this paradoxical quality because they are all going through things that we, too, have gone through – just with different context. We’ve all been on a bad date that somehow gets even worse. We’ve all been unsure of what comes next, whether in the context of puberty or a mid-career stall-out. Prose, so marvelously, taps into the fundamental truths of the universe when she delivers these short-story-chapters and makes the things these characters experience feel both unique and universal.
The more I think about it, the more I do have to agree with Christopher’s assessment about ambition. Each of these characters wants something. Sometimes they can’t tell you what it is – and they are all, in some way, stymied in the pursuit (even those who find ‘success’ in some way) – but they all decidedly want. Even, in the penultimate chapter, when the book takes an unexpected turn for the… I guess call it supernatural, although “otherworldly” might work just as well — even then, the reader understands a desire, a wish, a hope. We, too, as readers, wish and hope for these characters to achieve their desires, just as we hope to achieve our own. Our wants/wishes/hopes are revealed by the vicarious experiencing of the wants/wishes/hopes of these characters – and, as a reading experience, it is magnificent.
Rating: 5 out of 5. What starts off as something slight and silly (Mister Monkey is a creaky children’s musical about a domesticated monkey who goes on trial) reveals depths that the cover and its flap-copy could never have hinted at. As Prose hops through narrators, spinning out a daisy chain of connections across the untiring and tiresome city, she captures the universal in the individual and highlights the individual in what we might’ve otherwise considered universal. It is full of love, hope, philosophy, and the small emotions that color our day for the moments that we feel them but then otherwise float away into our history. An unexpected delight, one I might never’ve read were it not for the Tournament of Books.