by Matt Ruff
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & o judge Matt Ruff's novel Bad Monkeys by its cover, it's a bright and playful book that has delighted the likes of Neal Stephenson (The Baroque Trilogy) and Christopher Moore (You Suck). Bad Monkeys is a soft-cover, vivid yellow book that is narrow and quite tall in the bathroom-humor novelty size. Some of the writing inside is funny enough, but nothing like the comedic deadpan of Moore or the mock-Renaissance Fair style of Stephenson.
Bad Monkeys draws most of its humor from its premise that a group of domestic surveillance goons is always watching and judging the lives of Americans. They contact and then recruit the novel's protagonist -- a young woman named Jane Charlotte. Accused of murder at the novel's beginning, Bad Monkeys is Jane's confession from the interrogation room -- that tired (and implausible) old clich & eacute; of crime novelists.
There is enough bureaucratic killing and spying between the secret gang of good guys and the secret gang of bad guys to keep Bad Monkeys politically relevant, even when it indulges in comedic flights of fancy involving future drugs and surveillance technology. But the character of Jane is unfocused, largely because Ruff has decided to make her a liar and a delinquent.
I'm not a big fan of unreliable narrators. Unless the author is a Nabokov and his narrator is as interesting as Humbert Humbert, I usually find that an untrustworthy narrator is really just an excuse for authors to get away with whatever they need to make their novels work. "Oops, I forgot to mention..." moments abound in Bad Monkeys, and they undercut any satiric edge that Ruff is developing.
Ruff has at least written a few set pieces that fill several chapters admirably. A standoff in a cryogenics bank is both terse and hilarious, with the power shutting off amid frozen heads and corpses. And Jane's early training with a bag lady named Annie has a heady whiff of sincerity among all the antics. But the novel's devolution into a Good Jane/Bad Jane battle draws the focus away from Ruff's oddball world, shifting it to the psyche of a not-very-believable literary creation.