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March 31st, 2010 - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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March 31st, 2010


11:59 pm - Welcome to the Bad Monkey House
Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff, is a book I have been wanting to read for over a year. I discovered an intriguing review of it while idly surfing friendsfriends one day—the person I have to thank is lost to history—and it inspired the creation of the List of Books I Want to Read Eventually (most of which have been recommended by rachelmanija, at this point). All this time, this book was at the top of the list, and I think the blurb succinctly describes why:
Jane Charlotte has been arrested for murder.

She tells police that she is a member of a secret organization devoted to fighting evil; her division is called the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons—"Bad Monkeys" for short.

This confession earns Jane a trip to the jail's psychiatric wing, where a doctor attempts to determine whether she is lying, crazy—or playing a different game altogether. What follows is one of the most clever and gripping novels you'll ever read.
Now, that last sentence may sound like blurb propaganda, but let me tell you this: once I started reading this book, I did not want to stop. It really is a page-turner. I would have finished it the night I brought it back from the library if I could have. That was Monday. I burned through the last third just now because I wanted to get to the end and find out what the fuck was going on.

If you don't know I heart unreliable narrators by now, you haven't been paying attention. But I do. So of course I was into this woman spinning a far-fetched yarn about being recruited by a secret organization she couldn't prove existed, telling tales the psychiatrist comes back with verifiable facts to contradict. You know at any moment that her whole damn story, her whole life, everything she says could be revealed to be a lie, and you kind of don't care because it's still a great, rollicking story anyway. The organization is really cool! So what if her fiction is fiction? You're reading the fiction to be entertained, and if her fiction is entertaining you, isn't that worth something? Her story is intercut with scenes in the white room between her and the psychiatrist, and these scenes are told from an objective, third-person POV, as if you are a camera viewing the action. This, what you are seeing, is incontrovertible fact. This, you can believe, whatever Jane Charlotte says. This is reality.

Besides the battle between reality and fiction inherent in the narrative, there is a thread examining good and evil. Bad Monkeys, the division, is good, and they hunt down bad monkeys, who are evil. But who determines who's evil and whether or not they deserve to die? How do you know whether you're capable of evil? Is it something in your nature or something you can change? Which one is better for the world, good or evil?

Bad Monkeys is compulsively readable since there's so much urgency in the storytelling; you are being told the very long story that explains why Jane Charlotte killed a man. I'm not sure whether it's the writing or my mistaken impression that Jane was a teenager, but the voice sounds more like a mature 17-year-old than a 37-year-old woman. That does make it a very easy, quick read, though. The story does take some odd turns in the homestretch, and the final twists are somewhat convoluted, but no more so than you'd expect from a conspiracy thriller of this sort. You pick up a book like this, and you know that shit is going to end with everyone being dead or it was all a dream or actually this is 1962 or IT'S A COOKBOOK! or whatever. (Spoiler warning: it's not a cookbook.)

(OR IS IT.)
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