By Francine Prose
In Francine Prose’s newest, a very fine dive into aspirant lives going mostly unfulfilled, Mr. Monkey is at once an unfulfilled children’s book turned into a perennially performed silly play and a nexus around which the various lives revealed spin and interlace, a literary device that works very well in her skilled hands. It shows both how lives touch each other, often unbeknownst to people, and serves as the propulsive agent of the novel. (For a terrific novel that also illustrates the interconnectedness of lives, see Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness.)
Mr. Monkey is nearing the close of its run in an off-off Broadway venue. Adam, a ‘tween turning into an adolescent who has gone from kid to kid in the opening stages of sexual awaking, plays Mr. Monkey. This results in a number of behavioral changes, none of which prove good for the already threadbare play. It’s one of these changes that triggers the story, allowing Prose and readers to swing into the lives of one character after another.
The novel’s characters include the actors, audience members, acquaintances of the audience members, and later, the author of the novel. Even among the players there are quite distinctive differences. Margo is the professional actress, the Yale graduate, who never quite made it. Adam is the boy actor whose mother wants him to have a career in theater. Lakshmi is the young intern with dreams of bigger things that involve production of her own play. The widowed grandfather, who once had a successful career in the art world but who know feels lonely, even with his daughter’s family. Edward is the little boy in that family with his own set of problems revolving around school and popularity. Sonya is his teacher, new at the job and unsure of herself, in and out of school. Ray is the author of Mr. Monkey, the book that originally was supposed to express his feelings about what he saw in the Vietnam War, feelings that never saw the light of day. Mario, out on the perimeter of Mr. Monkey, the play, is a waiter who is something of an expert on the play’s performance history, starving for personal closeness. Eleanor, an ER nurse by day and actress by night and the most sympathetic character in the novel, finds fulfillment in both worlds for different reasons. And, finally, Roger, the director, the final installment in the novel, and at the end of his career, is something of a bookend to Margo.
Be assured that each of these named has a human and interesting story to tell, with some revelations for readers. Prose also uses Charles Darwin to good effect at various junctures. Chekhov hits the boards for a bow, too. Salinger gets a nod, but to much less effect. And while billed as a comedy, discard the thoughts of the madcap and focus on the human comedy, Balzac style. w/c