Hell, it turns out, is children’s theater. That’s the distinct impression you get in Francine Prose’s new novel, Mister Monkey, about an eponymous “off-off-off-off Broadway” children’s production and its panoply of warped players. It’s always exhilarating when a serious novelist reveals her ridiculous, irreverent streak, when she isn’t too self-consciously proper to jape and jeer at the ineptitudes of everyday living. Prose has always been an unafraid novelist with a thirst for the mordant and satirical — her most effective novel, Blue Angel, chastens the illiberal extravagances of the academic Left — and in Mister Monkey she’s back to show us how downright batty our world can be.
Modeled on a children’s book about a Manhattan family that adopts a pocket-picking chimpanzee, Mister Monkey the musical is, by all accounts, “an outrageously bad play . . . a sweet but basically retarded musical for children.” One character describes it as “obvious and preachy, full of improving lessons about race and class, honesty, justice, and some kind of . . . spirituality, for want of a better word.” The children’s book author wonders “how anybody but a fucking moron could enjoy that fucking idiotic bullshit.”
The cast and crew of the musical lurch through a series of mishaps by the misbegotten, going off script, encouraging injury, inciting humiliation. Among the cast there’s Margot, a former Yale star who in costume looks like “a slutty executive-secretary birthday clown” and has “a brittle protective screw-you shell encasing a gooey caramel of longing.” There’s Adam, the barely pubescent child actor playing Mister Monkey — note his insistently symbolic name — who tries to hump Margot onstage: “Adam is darkness, darkness, terror, and rage building toward a volcanic eruption inside a monkey suit.” There’s Roger, the “sadistic, half-mad” director overseeing this debacle. There’s Ray Ortiz, the children’s book author, who refers to Mister Monkey as “that little primate son of a bitch,” apparently not realizing that he’s a primate, too. (In a confusion of taxonomy to drive a primatologist nuts, “chimp” and “monkey” are everywhere employed interchangeably — chimps aren’t monkeys.) He’s a common imbecile, this children’s author: about the butchery of gorillas in the Congo, his contribution is “I hate that shit,” as if he were rating salsa.
Prose casts an often shrewd eye over the fine-graded delineations of the New York society her players inhabit. There are chic thirty-something parents who yearn never to be found guilty of “the sin of talking or thinking about anything besides their kids” — Volvo drivers whose pompous daily objective is “to trick their children into eating quinoa.” Downtown is “the fascist corporate wasteland otherwise known as Battery Park City.” One woman uses a “tasseled Tibetan feed sack” for a purse. The smoke from a halal food truck is “half-crematorial,” a child’s German immigrant teacher a “Nazi pig asshole.”
As you can see, Prose doesn’t care whether or not you’re bothered by the crass way her people think and speak. The second the satirical novelist begins to worry about the delicate sensibilities of her readers is the second she forfeits her stake in genuine satire. If Prose marshals comedic observations no one would argue with — “Below a certain level of fame, a diva is just a pain in the ass” or: “Fuck with an elephant and he will stomp you flat, no questions asked” — she also knows when to inject a dignified veracity: “There is never a moment when the grandfather has to stop and calculate how long he has outlived his father; he always knows.”
But what Prose’s publisher calls a “madcap narrative” isn’t nearly madcap enough. If you attempt to allay silliness with shafts of sincerity, you’d best take care that the sincerity isn’t too aware of the juxtaposition, that it doesn’t bloat into sentimentality. When Prose hovers over the stage, detailing the various travesties of the show, she’s at her most comically astute. When she exits the theater to chronicle the dutifully unhinged lives of her characters, most of whom come freighted with unnecessarily traumatic back-stories, she trots down avenues of forced earnestness, straining for an emotional gravitas the story doesn’t need or want. These pat, frictionless forays into their personal affairs are fusillades of the quotidian, pointlessly exact, as in the tedious date when Ray Ortiz proposes to his girlfriend.
Why didn’t Prose rely on the undiluted comedy, let it be its disturbed self without defacing by precious longueurs? The characters are given to maudlin platitudes and clichés: “Each moment of life is a gift” and “The future looks bright” and “Anything could still happen.” They think in saccharine metaphor: “Outside I’m a prickly cactus. Inside is the cool refreshing water that will save your life if you are lost in the desert.” Prose is undeterred by the effortless banality of their inner realms, and she’s undeterred by caricature. In one scene with a priest, she has him trail every sentence with “my son”: “Go on, my son” and “Please continue, my son.”
Worse, much the novel is too breezily confected, with no linguistic commitment — the loose, nearly automatic language has all the attendant cliché you’d expect: “good as gold” and “heated discussions” and “flirting with disaster” and “a cry for help.” In Allan Gurganus’s Plays Well with Others and Martin Amis’s Money, two other novels that detail the sundry madnesses of Manhattan, the comedy surges as much from the circumstances as from the originality and wit of the language that narrates them. If every novelist has an obligation to say it new, the comic novelist has an extra onus, since staleness of phrase is incompatible with wit.
In one of the best scenes in Mister Monkey, “way beyond off-script,” Adam grabs Margot’s kicking foot and holds it there in the air before him:
They square off, staring, mongoose-cobra, Margot cork-screwed around and tottering on one high heel, the frayed hem of her purple skirt riding dangerously up her poor little chicken thigh. Adam could break her leg! Does the audience have any idea how rogue and psychotic this is? Do they think that violent assault is acceptable children’s musical theater?
Good questions. The shimmering cynics and earnest dupes who populate these pages, players and spectators alike, often seem astounded to find themselves at this present place in their lives — in this theater, this city. “Oh, the sad, sad, sadness of their puny ambitions,” Prose writes. How can they have larger, more interesting ambitions? They might start by becoming more interesting people.