Cover of Bad Monkeys

Bad Monkeys
Matt Ruff
230 pages
published in 2007

When your local library's automated lending system refuses to recognise a book you're attempting to borrow when it's clearly there in front of you, it's enough to make you a little bit paranoid, but when that book is Bad Monkeys, an example of American Paranoia at its finest, with a Christopher Moore quote on the cover saying "Buy it, read it, memorise then destroy it. There are eyes everywhere.", you become more than a bit paranoid. Little did I know then how appropriate that little incident was. Bad Monkeys is one of those books that makes you look twice at every CCTV camera on your daily commute, not to mention much more innocent examples of street furniture for signs of hidden cameras.

You might know Matt Ruff from Sewer, Gas & Electric, his brilliant and hilarious parody-slash-update-slash-mixup of the stoner paranoia classic Illuminantus! trilogy, not to mention that bible of teenage libertarianism, Atlas Shrugged. If that novel showed Ruff's absurdistic, bombastic side, Bad Monkeys is toned down, sleek and effortlessly cool. It still taps into that vein of essential American paranoia that also drove Sewer, Gas & Electric, but this time it's more refined, less consciously wacky.

Bad Monkeys starts off simply enough, in a white room, with a white floor, white ceiling and white tiles on the wall, in the nut wing of the Clark County Detention Center, where Jane Charlotte is held for observation for killing somebody she wasn't supposed to. As she explains to her interviewer, she's part of a group called "Bad Monkeys, who are the division for "the final disposition of irredeemable persons" of a much larger, nameless organisation that seems to be dedicated to fighting evil. Jane's role is as exterminator, killing those people the Cost-Benefits division has determined are worth killing. But the murder she's in jail for was unsanctioned; Dixon, the man she killed was just a prick, not evil. Jane knows she deserves to be jailed for the murder, but why mention bad monkeys? Her interviewer suggests she wants to tell her story and she agrees, but warns it's a long one. She starts at the beginning, when she first became aware of the bad monkeys, when she was still a high school kid...

Jane's story is told entirely in flashback, starting from when she was in high school and stumbled over a Bad Monkeys operation taking down a serial killer, how she got recruited shortly after the September 11 attacks and the first missions she went on. Inbetween the flashbacks she and her interviewer discuss how real all of this is, as he brings in evidence contrary to what's she's been telling, like police files on the supposed serial killer that show he's somebody else entirely and the like. At first the big question seems to be whether the Bad Monkeys really exist or whether Jane simply is suffering from paranoid delusions.

Halfway through the story however this focus changes, as the interviewer becomes less skeptical and seems to be more than what he looks to be himself, while Jane's story becomes more baraque and convoluted. It turns out there's another shadowy, almost omnipotent organisation called the Troop, but this one is evil and specialises in turning bad monkey agents. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, Jane gets caught up into an increasingly bizarre underworld of battling secret organisations, in which she's never sure what she sees is real or just another test and we slowly get to learn why she killed Dixon when he wasn't evil, wasn't a sanctioned target, though he was a prick. Is Jane everything she says she is? Is her interviewer? Is she really in prison? Or is there something else going on.

Bad Monkeys is a book that fries your synapses like a speed trip gone bad, a book you'll emerge from a paranoid wreck, a twentyfirst century version of the bad acid trips that was Philip K. Dick's best works, or the inspired lunacy of the Illuminantus! trilogy, with a dash of The Matrix and other such reality bending movies thrown in to provide the pyrokinetics. It's short but dense, where every new chapter brings you to doubt the truth of the previous chapter and paced like a cutting edge videoclip, where you never have the chance to catch your breath. It's brilliant, but I hate the ending.

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Webpage created 20-05-2008, last updated 21-07-2008.