Try to imagine Fight Club crossed with K-Pax – with elements of The Matrix and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome thrown in for good measure – and you might end up somewhere close to the tone of Bad Monkeys. Mixing a thriller plot with elements of pure fantasy, it won’t be everyone’s idea of a good night in, but there are enough twists and turns to keep most of us interested, as well as the occasional rumination on the nature of good and evil to ensure that our brains are engaged.
Jane Charlotte has been arrested for murder, and Bad Monkeys is a transcript of her confessions to the police psychiatrist. It soon becomes clear that Jane is not your average criminal, however, despite her drug habit and self-destructive nature. She confesses that she’s part of a secret organisation dedicated to fighting evil, and that her division, ‘The Department For The Final Disposition Of Irredeemable Persons’, otherwise known as ‘Bad Monkeys’, is responsible for dispatching the worst offenders.
Her story grows increasingly fantastical as it progresses – taking in exploding footballs, secret weapons that cause heart failures and strokes, vanishing agents, and dollar bills that contain surveillance cameras – but Ruff maintains a degree of internal logic that makes you wonder where all this is heading. Is she delusional, or is she merely describing a fictional world of his devising?
When the doctor interviewing her discovers a trail of corroborating evidence, the lines begin to blur even further, and it becomes clear that this is all somehow linked to the abduction of her brother Phil when they were children. Has she fallen into a delusional state due to her own complicity in his kidnapping? Or is there something more sinister at work?
Questions and uncertainty form a large part of Ruff’s narrative, and most readers will find themselves having to pause for breath between chapters, as they attempt to decode the lies and fantasies of its labyrinthine plot. It’s this very air of uncertainty that lends the novel its appeal, however, and by halfway Ruff has cooked up a state of paranoia that Philip K. Dick would be proud of.
Then there’s the final twist at the end. To reveal it here would be to undermine the entire novel, but suffice it to say that it almost certainly won’t be what you expect, and it will either convince you that Bad Monkeys is a wonderful tour-de-force, or make you regret having spent so many hours reading it. As twists go it certainly delivers on many levels, but the conclusions it reaches won’t be to everyone’s liking.
There’s no doubting that Matt Ruff has crafted a fine page-turner, with almost as many twists as an episode of 24, but in the end it rests upon the believability of the rather warped worldview that he has created and it doesn’t always deliver. There’s enough commentary on the state of the world to cement it in something approaching reality, but Ruff takes pleasure in pulling the rug out from beneath our feet once too often, and most readers will end up feeling disorientated and a little queasy by the time the curtain closes.
Bad Monkeys is almost certain to develop a cult following, however, if only for its distorted view of the world, and anyone suffering from Matrix-withdrawal should get their hands on a copy today. It may not be perfect, but it will get your pulse racing at the same time as engaging your brain – and there aren’t many novels that can claim that.