Bad Monkeys — reviews

From The New York Times Book Review, August 26, 2007:

Bad Monkeys is something of a science-fiction Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist, Jane Charlotte, tells her life story to a psychiatrist. She cracks wise and doesn’t quite fit into society, and the heart of her story is, seemingly, about a tragic younger brother. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, except she kills criminals with the equivalent of a ray gun.

Along with the Salingeresque details, Ruff has animated Bad Monkeys with the spirit of Philip K. Dick, and he’s borrowed a little seasoning from Jim Thompson and Thomas Pynchon. The ray gun is, naturally, pure Dick, and the fact that you root for Jane even though it becomes clear she’s a sociopath is a classic Thompson touch. (See The Killer Inside Me and Savage Night.) And I felt Pynchon-like flourishes out of The Crying of Lot 49 in Ruff’s elaborately conceived secret societies. The real debt is to Dick, though, in the way Ruff expertly plays with notions of what is real and what is illusion.

Bad Monkeys, allusions aside, is highly entertaining. It moves fast and keeps surprising you. There are also some exciting and hallucinatory action sequences that are so skillfully written I felt as if I was watching the first “Matrix” movie, which I unabashedly loved. Then I snobbishly thought: “Am I reading a screenplay?” But I probably only had that thought knowing I was going to write a review and might have to produce clever, negative things to say. And why shouldn’t movies influence books? The reverse has certainly been true.

Along with making Bad Monkeys a page turner, Ruff dabbles with going deeper, exploring good and evil to a certain degree, and there are characters named Wise, True and Love. But he doesn’t go too deep, which is a good thing (not an evil thing), as it would take away from his delightful and swift storytelling. Throughout the book, you feel as if you’re trying to solve a mystery before the writer gives away his final clue, although Bad Monkeys isn’t so much a “who-dun-it?” as a “who-is-it?” Who is Jane Charlotte? I wasn’t able to solve this book’s riddles before the end, but I had a lot of fun guessing, trying to unravel it all, racing against the clock.

Now here’s a real quibble. I was completely absorbed in the book and felt it ended quite satisfactorily, which is a hard thing to pull off with a science-fiction mystery thriller (a trifecta of genres!). Then I turned the last page, hoping there might be some kind of mad epilogue. But instead I stumbled upon Ruff’s elaborate acknowledgments. He mentions some celebrities and also thanks Philip K. Dick, which seems unnecessary: the novel itself is a generous thank you, a nod to the beyond.

I can see nonfiction writers who have done a lot of research thanking numerous people, but novelists should put brief acknowledgments at the front of a book. I was savoring my last moments with Bad Monkeys, the reading equivalent of post-coital happiness, and then was yanked out of the book’s spell, which I would have liked to stay under for a little while longer, like a dream—or an illusion—I didn’t want to be woken from.

— Jonathan Ames

Copyright 2007 The New York Times

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From Booklist, May 1, 2007:

STARRED REVIEW

In a holding cell in the psychiatric wing of a prison, a psychologist is interviewing inmate Jane Charlotte. She’s been charged with homicide. Although she does not deny it, she weaves an outrageous story about the circumstances surrounding the murder. She claims to be working for a secret organization devoted to fighting evil with an array of fantastical weapons, including a gun that, depending on the setting, can induce a heart attack, a stroke, or a coma. Jane details her initial contact with the organization when she was a teenager, her “lost years” as a homeless drug addict, and her eventual work for the division dubbed Bad Monkeys, which targets and eliminates “irredeemable persons.” Ruff, whose first two novels attracted a cult following, especially in Europe, displays so much imaginative flair (similar in sensibility to George Saunders) and relays it all with such exuberance that readers will have a hard time tearing themselves away from the book—indeed, the more outlandish Jane’s story grows, the faster they’ll turn the pages. The fiendishly clever plot twists, involving a covert group fighting for evil, only add to the mind-bending experience.

— Joanne Wilkinson

Copyright 2007 Booklist

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From Publishers Weekly, June 11, 2007:

In this clever SF thriller from Ruff, almost everyone is a bad monkey of some kind, but only Jane Charlotte is a self-confessed member of “The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons.” Or is she? In a series of sessions with a psychotherapist in the Las Vegas County Jail “nut wing,” Jane tells the story of her early life in San Francisco and her assimilation into the “Bad Monkeys,” an organization devoted to fighting evil. Crazy or sane, Jane is still a murderer, whether she used a weapon like the NC gun, which kills someone using Natural Causes, or more prosaic weaponry. Still, nothing is quite what it seems as Jane’s initial story of tracking a serial killer janitor comes under scrutiny and the initial facts about her brother, Phil, get turned on their head. At times the twists are enough to give the reader whiplash. Ruff’s expert characterization of Jane and agile manipulation of layers of reality ground the novel and make it more than just a Philip K. Dick rip-off.

Copyright 2007 Publishers Weekly

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From the Publishers Weekly “Galley Talk” feature, June 25, 2007:

Don’t start Matt Ruff’s newest title, Bad Monkeys, unless you have an uninterrupted stretch of time to devote to devouring this tasty little treat. Completely different from Ruff’s wonderful Set This House in Order from four years ago, Bad Monkeys is like a house of cards put up by a speed freak: it goes a thousand miles an hour, and you keep expecting it to topple over, but it never does. Ruff manages to keep a hundred preposterous notions in balance until the very last sentence. Under arrest for murder, Jane Charlotte tells a tale that lands her right in the psychiatric wing—a story about her employer, a shadow organization with divisions such as “The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons” (Bad Monkeys for short), and how she came to work for them. A cerebral joy from start to finish, and with an ending that will absolutely knock you out, Bad Monkeys is the most fun I’ve had reading in quite some time!

— Rachel Ray, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, Ky.

Copyright 2007 Publishers Weekly

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From Seattle magazine, July 2007:

Queen Anne writer Matt Ruff’s latest novel, Bad Monkeys, is best enjoyed with popcorn. The twisting and turning action-adventure novel contains snappy movielike dialogue and enough mind-bending action scenes to make the writers of The Matrix jealous… Throughout the book, which deals mainly with the thin line between good and evil, we’re constantly questioning what is or isn’t real until Ruff reveals all in the last pages. Heavy themes aside, Bad Monkeys is mostly good fun, thanks to Ruff’s clever Orwellian flourishes (Bad Monkeys has an intel-gathering program called “Eyes Only” that puts tiny cameras in paintings, posters and statues). Overall, Ruff’s clean and concise writing makes this a quick read, which is good, because you might want to review the complicated plot again once you know the ending. GRADE: A-

— Lindsey Rowe

Copyright 2007 Tiger Oak Publications, Inc.

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From Library Journal, July 15, 2007:

Imprisoned in a nearly featureless room, Jane Charlotte is being interrogated by a man in a white lab coat. It seems she’s killed somebody. How? And why? Her answer is a convoluted tale of a vast secret organization whose agents fight evil by keeping humanity under “ubiquitous surveillance” and selectively assassinating the “bad monkeys,” people deemed irredeemably evil. Of course, such vast and secret organizations tend to have equally vast and secret nemeses. They also have to keep careful tabs on their own agents. Jane’s not quite certain which side her captors are on, and it’s an open question whether she’s crazy or not. There are echoes here of the pervasive paranoia of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Walker Percy’s unreliable jailhouse narrator in Lancelot, as well as the sardonic black humor of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, not to mention Max Barry’s sly satires of the absurdities of bureaucratic organizations. Cult favorite Ruff’s scenario inevitably raises questions about the morality of secret and summary “justice,” but the story moves along in a fast-paced, satirical style that never slows down or turns preachy. Jane’s tangled tale, from her confused, youthful introduction to this complicated secret world to the final, catastrophic mission, will keep most readers guessing until the last page. Recommended for all public libraries.

— Bradley A. Scott

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

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From BookPage, August 2007:

Jane Charlotte has been arrested for murder, and she’s being examined by a police psychiatrist to discover whether she is fit for trial—or fit for a straitjacket. There are a few wrinkles, however, that need to be ironed out. She might not be Jane Charlotte. She might not have killed anyone. She might not be in jail.

Right from page one, you’re already halfway down the rabbit hole in Matt Ruff’s latest novel, Bad Monkeys. Ruff, the author of the critically lauded Set This House in Order, Fool on the Hill and Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy, ladles a dollop of William S. Burroughs into an Ian Fleming base in such a mesmerizing way it will have you scratching your head and doubling back to make sure you scooped up every psychedelic-laden morsel.

A shadowy, non-governmental, but very powerful agency (think Impossible Missions Force here) called “the organization” engaged the services of a young Jane Charlotte to capture or extinguish miscreants whom they call “Bad Monkeys.” Jane’s particular subdivision—and you can bet they don’t have business cards—is The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons.

In the words of Hunter S. Thompson, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” and Jane Charlotte recounts to the police psychiatrist the curious turn of events that led her to be picked for her work as a high-minded (and highly irregular) vigilante. Along the way, she encounters agents of The Troop (think SMERSH, T.H.R.U.S.H. or the DMV), evildoers whose sole aim it is to thwart the organization and introduce wickedness into the world. Trouble is, her long-lost brother just might be The Troop’s criminal mastermind, and Jane Charlotte may have to lure him out—or take him out.

Told mostly in flashback, the plot twists like capellini in a bubbling cauldron, and the complex sequence of events both demands—and rewards—your rapt attention.

— Thane Tierney

Copyright 2007 ProMotion, Inc.

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From Powells.com Review-a-Day, July 21, 2007:

Matt Ruff is the kind of author who has yet to write the same book twice. While I was not a fan of his debut novel Fool on the Hill, I was quite impressed with both of his subsequent novels: the Edward Abbey-meets-Ayn Rand-via-Thomas Pynchon flavored Sewer, Gas & Electric, and the achingly stirring tale of multiple personality disorder Set This House in Order. Both are books that I’ve recommended without hesitation in the past and I’m happy to report that Bad Monkeys can be similarly endorsed.

Bad Monkeys inhabits the same literary space as the drug-fueled paranoia of Philip K. Dick, owing a particular debt to Minority Report. In that story, the protagonist is a detective in a division of the police department that investigates what are called “pre-cog” crimes, arresting perpetrators before they have a chance to act on their impulses. In Ruff’s universe, it’s not a matter of seeing the future as much as handicapping it, singling out bad seeds and eradicating them. It’s not about justice; it’s about, as one the Bad Monkeys operatives puts it, “fighting evil in all its forms.” Bad Monkeys is an intriguing exploration of moral relativism set in a plot so labyrinthine that it could have sprung from the mind of Borges if he wrote screenplays for Michael Bay. Often the lines between heroes and villains are blurred, and the organization, which is ostensibly fighting for good, engages in surveillance so ubiquitous and undetectable that Alberto Gonzales would be green with envy. And, there is never any explanation as to who charges the Bad Monkeys with their tasks or gave them a license to kill. It’s a shadow organization whose umbra gets murkier the longer Jane works for them.

But ultimately, as Jane is being interrogated, her reliability as a narrator is called into question as the psychiatrist presents evidence that refutes her testimony. Ruff throws the reader some astounding curveballs, often necessitating the need to re-read and re-re-read some passages to make tentative sense of what’s going on. In this way, Bad Monkeys pleasingly resembles cinematic brain corkscrews such as Memento and The Usual Suspects.

— Gerry Donaghy

Copyright 2007 Powells.com

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From The Oregonian, July 22, 2007:

It isn’t every author who can craft a thriller that is familiar enough to be comforting and new enough to offer genuine surprise. Ruff can and does. Just when you’ve figured out what the author is up to (and you’re congratulating yourself on how clever you are), he pulls the rug right out from underneath you. Everything shifts in a split second. In spite of a dramatic “Matrix”-style showdown in Las Vegas, the battle between good and evil really comes down to Jane Charlotte and the psychiatrist locked together in that little white room…

— Katie Schneider

Copyright 2007 Oregon Live LLC

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From Scotsman.com, July 23, 2007:

…Ruff constructs an elegant and inventive series of Chinese boxes, double-bluffs and deliberate misdirections, that unlock with satisfying precision. [Bad Monkeys] nods at Philip K Dick (whose sister, who died in infancy, was called Jane Charlotte) and The Matrix, and, crucially, none of the many revelations undercuts the reader’s enjoyment of the previous layers of narrative. It is a fantastic, unputdownable thriller.

— Stuart Kelley

Copyright 2007 Scotsman.com

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From the Associated Press, July 24, 2007:

Drawing on story lines and characters from many a science fiction novel and movie, Ruff nevertheless continually surprises. With tight plot twists and an utterly engaging main character, familiar images of the doubting psychiatrist, the suited assassin and the reluctant hero take on new life and are sustained with overflowing energy… Bad Monkeys is a short read and if you have the time, it will be difficult to put down. Rarely is a book that flirts with both the nature of reality and theories of good and evil so absolutely entertaining in a “do-not-talk-to-me-until-I-am-done-reading” way.

— Sara Rose

Copyright 2007 by the Associated Press

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From The Portland Tribune, July 31, 2007:

Here’s another author who needs to be read more, especially if you enjoy hilarious, quirky fiction that’s well-written and well-plotted…. Ruff writes like a science-fiction junkie with a penchant for Woody Allen.

The result is a highly compelling read that will keep you indoors no matter how beautiful the summer day.

— Ellison G. Weist

Copyright 2007 by The Portland Tribune

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From The Washington Post, August 8, 2007:

Suppose that some actions on your part—committing a simple undetectable little murder here and there—would make the world a better place. Are you onboard with this program? This is essentially the thought experiment that Matt Ruff conducts in his grimly comic sci-fi novel Bad Monkeys…. Ruff, a canny entertainer, fleshes out his experiment with ax-wielding clowns running through the streets of Las Vegas, ray guns that deliver strokes and heart attacks, warring secret organizations and enough paranoia, double-dealing, plot twists and mortal thrills to fuel a dozen le Carre novels….

Jane proves to be the most unreliable narrator possible. Her life is a bundle of self-deception and misdirection, which Ruff wraps inside so many ingenious fake-out layers that readers will find their heads spinning with awed delight by the book’s frenetic climax….

We’re led to think of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” And perhaps even “Get Smart,” since many of the organization’s tactics are patently absurd, such as a debriefing that occurs as a catered picnic atop a hotel roof…. Ruff sees nothing dubious about a secret police society, mercilessly exterminating evildoers. His utopian organization comes off not as a corruptible, selfish enterprise, but as a trustworthy bulwark against the willed chaos and entropy of the bad monkeys…. He dares to make a black-and-white, morally sharp-edged world where the only ambiguity is which side you’re on. Jane Charlotte’s failure—for ultimately she does prove all too human—is not a lack of passion or commitment, but rather a reluctance to abandon self-interest. It’s a test most of us would fail.

— Paul Di Filippo

Copyright 2007 by The Washington Post