Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review: Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff

Bad Monkeys is, according to a back-cover interview with the author, Matt Ruff's Philip K. Dick book. That's great: I'll be the first to admit that I don't know Dick (ha) all that well, at least not at normal length (hee hee)--an interview and a short story I think is all I've ever read--but there have been enough adaptations and knockoffs of the guy over the years to make this one seem like it lays a credible enough claim to the throne. Bad Monkeys is a trip into the shadowy behind-the-scenes world where They watch you from, and then it's a chase through it. It plays on perceptions and on the deep game of creepy surveillance; it gets you looking over the characters' shoulders at all times. It aims for paranoia, and it hits that mark. It's just easy enough on the premises to be fun, and, as I almost never do, I finished the whole ting in a sitting. The main character, Jane, comes to us as likeable in a novel-esque way, a fast-talking and sassy kid who is nonetheless on the side of good, and Ruff is smart enough to take what are normally humanizing or even ennobling anti-authoritarian tendencies in her and examine them, mess with the expectations of that trope a bit. Jane, by the unfortunate circumstance of losing her (obvious homage of a) little brother Phil as a little kid, comes under the scrutiny of the Agency, which, we learn before long, is dedicated to nip the evil forces of the world (who Ruff gives to us as movie-grade sickos: serial killers, abusive perverts, bomb-throwers) before they get worse, and Jane's bad luck, set up against her quick and independent mind, eventually gets her on the team.

When the backstory ends and her training begins, we learn too of a counter-organization, the CHAOS to the Agency's CONTROL (Jane calls them the Bad Monkeys, based on some of their flyers), which runs cover for the forces of nastiness and discord. Both groups operate through deep and strange surveillance techniques (microscopic cameras that can be printed on any image with eyes), interact with their staff through dreams, duck through unexpected doors, and leave obscure signs as a means of communication (engineering clues in the daily crossword puzzle, seeding live scenes with telling iconagraphy and whatnot). The threatening ubiquity of it all strikes me as Dickish, but the telling of it seems a lot like an epically-tilted Stephen King novel. The juxtaposition of real life against the deep weirdness fits that mode. The goals and methods of these organizations seem much better suited to fantasy and the supernatural than they do to technology and philosophy, and it's where my mind tended to go. You can give magical assignments to a Team Good and a Team Evil that floats just out of humanity's regular sight--angels and demons, Seelie and Unseelie courts, whatever--and even introduce all the moral ambiguities into the characters that inhabit the opposing realms that you want--hell, a quarter of the sidebar is fantasy of this sort--but you it's harder to give absolute alignment to "realistic" human organizations, and it's a flaw in the foundation that the novel simply can't build its way past.

And with that, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to proceed to spoil the living fuck out of this one.

Look, that it's really explicit is the problem. I like the game that Ruff is going with: give us a flawed but sympathetic character and let's see how far he can stretch the reader's empathy, how long it takes for the flaws to win out.  How much evidence does it take for us to conclude that whatever side the protagonist is playing for, she's just a mean piece of work. Unfortunately, this whole exercise culminates with Jane, backed into a corner and confronted with knowledge of where she is and what actually happened to her brother, copping up. "All right, I'm evil!" she screams.  Hell, and maybe she is, but the problem I have is that she accepts the paradigm.  Even as her story breaks up, she seems bright enough to otherwise rationalize, socialized enough to act out shame, or bold enough to be defiant, and instead she confesses to the supernatural premises. But it's not even that, really, more that we readers should accept it.  Jane might have got there in the context of the story. The problem is that there's nowhere any condemnation of the good guys. Without supernatural validation of the absolute good (whether it survives in observance or not), we're left with the reality of the ambiguity of "good."  The agency that's allegedly keeping Evil in check, well, it's obvioiusly motherfucking evil it's own self. They spy, they infiltrate, they conspire, they judge with sparse evidence, and they kill with the certitude of zealots. And Jane fits right in to that. Jane's judged, but her employers are not.  No one watches the watchmen here, and how can you write a Phil Dick novel, or really write anything sincerely in 2007, where no one even wonders about that?

The other major flaw I think Ruff could have avoided with better writing. At the big reveal, the agents tell Jane the point where the story fell apart, the point where she stopped working for them, and became an object of study, where her whole story became staged. It's okay to do that, I think, in a novel with the the rules that Bad Monkeys gives us, and the vehicle for it (where are they really?) is telegraphed early enough. The problem is the supposed tell: there's just no way for the reader to see it, even after the fact. It's written like the classic joke: "We've got messages in the Jumble, agents behind every dialtone, evil clowns, and guns that fire heart attacks." "Oh hey I got one, what about drugs that change time, or a strange twin?" "Yeah right, that shit is just crazy."
The book was a very enjoyable escape, but it also had problems you could play T-ball with. If it was longer, I'd actually be mad.


David Marlow said...

When/after you were reading the book, did you ever have to say to yourself, "I wonder if Ellen Page or Natalie Portman will play Jane."? Like it was one of those novels written in order to beg to be optioned? I got that sense years ago with Sphere.

And I may have already asked you this before, but have you ever read William Gibson's novel Neuromancer? (Early 80s sci-fi.)

(Must you giggle while I'm trying to read your review?)

Keifus said...

Welp, I thought that the five-paragraph reply I wrote earlier should have probably taken. Guess I'll try again.

Sometimes I get that vibe with actors/writing. This one, it didn't jump out at me, even though it seemed like we're dealing with a type here. It'd need someone a little more feral than the people you mentioned. (She may well be a Gibson or Stephenson heroine, to be honest.) It may come to me.

I read Neuromancer--I was going to say recently, but it must have been ten years ago. I thought that the setting/viewpoint was indeed groundbreaking and impressively stylized, but that the plot, or character, or pacing, or something, didn't really catch up. I think I may have read it a little past its innovative prime.

Sky like a television set tuned to a dead channel? I might have to explain that one to the kids.

I actually remember that in freshman year (1990), one of my friends had the video game version, which, by the primitive standards of the time, was pretty fun. The secret was "sophistry," for what it's worth.

I do have some longer and better recommended books in the queue, but I'm working through some lower-commitment ones. It's been hard to get it all moving along right just lately...

As for Dick jokes, good god man, I am only so mature.

David Marlow said...

When I read it, about a year ago now, I thought the whole time, "Oh, this is what The Matrix was based on." Only to find out otherwise. But surely the W'ski Brothers "borrowed" heavily from it. But yeah, there was something wrong with its pacing etc., what you said. Yet the tech stuff was scary prescient.

Speaking for me, it doesn't seem to matter what you read; I just really like your reviews.

I'm working on 2 things, just for my own jollies:
1. The modern schools of comedy, how many, and how they intersect/overlap/"leaders"?
2. Modern movies that changed the way films are/were made/viewed, and the subsequent expectations of movies in their wake
3. Next winter's living quarters (can't remember the last time I looked forward to the great thaw more than this year)

All weaved into a magical web of wholesome comforting distortion.

Keifus said...

Hey, thanks. And it's not like I don't know what you mean. I don't think I'll ever watch a whole episode of The Bachelor, but I live for the updates.

You could go far with that movie topic. And to bring it around a little, I don't think that The Matrix could have existed in quite the same way without Keanu Reeves having already played (Gibson character) Johnny Mnemonic. Seriously.

This winter just doesn't want to give up the chilly ghost. I was in Nebraska a couple of weeks ago, and got out just barely ahead of the first of the spring storms you guys have been getting hammered with.


David Marlow said...

Well last night was actually quite pretty. Dog and I went out to put some of the equipment away, and it was just this warm, breezy, snowy night, with about 6 inches on the ground already. This morning was a different story. Plow, wind, plow, wind... It'll all melt by Friday at the latest.

I never saw Johnny Mnemonic and the reviews have kept me away. But I think I know exactly what you mean re: Matrix.

Also, with all my spouting off about John Williams, I think it's incumbent upon me to make a case for all of the insane praise I heap upon him. It would be a good exercise for me.

As for The Bachelor, it's weird that I like the show so much, and yet it's the most cruel, saddest of any reality show out there. Until NBC's new matchmaker premier later this month, probably.