The play at the center of Francine Prose’s new novel is not the sort of production you hear about come Tony Award time. It’s a not-very-good but often-produced children’s musical about a chimpanzee whose parents are killed by poachers in the jungle. Bereft, he comes to America to live with the human family who lost a mother in the same attack.
As if that’s not dubious enough, the play’s plot gets even sketchier. Mister Monkey, the chimp, is framed by an evil stepmother and arrested for stealing a wallet, then released on the flimsiest of evidence. His attorney falls for the widowed dad. Everybody sings, but the songs are lousy (“Monkey Tango/Orangutang-o/You rang?/Oh tango/King-King Kong-o/Mighty Joe Young-o”). “Hamilton,” it is not.
But for the satirically minded Prose, a dazzling writer who’s gifted at exposing our secret shames, this inexplicably long-running disaster is the perfect premise for an invigorating examination of art and ambition as well as a fertile jumping-off point for revelations about our human fragility. She uses a particular performance of this off-off-off-off-so-far-off Broadway production as the link that unites a series of unsettled characters, and she swings from one point of view to the next as easily as Mister Monkey might swing from branch to branch were he back in his jungle home.
Margot, the actress playing Mister Monkey’s attorney, is staring down the death of her artistic dreams. She once played Sonya in “Uncle Vanya.” Now she’s reduced to dumb songs and a clownish costume and is being terrorized by Adam, the unhappy tween who plays the chimp. Furious at his stage mother and his absent father, Adam is letting his hormonal rage get the best of him and acting out on stage in inappropriate (meaning sexual) ways.
Ray, the author of the book from which the play is (poorly) adapted, loathes the musical but loves the royalty checks that keep him in fine wine and attractive women (he had wanted to write a serious novel based on his experience in Vietnam, but the disturbing reality about a war nobody wants to rehash doesn’t sell). A child and his grandfather, members of the audience who make an unexpected scene at the performance, suffer at opposite ends of the generational spectrum: The boy, Edward, is the odd kid out at his new school, while his grandfather struggles to find his footing after losing his wife and being forcibly retired. Only Eleanor, the actress who plays the evil stepmother, seems to be on emotionally steady ground, and that’s because her real job as an emergency room nurse reminds her what truly matters.
“Mister Monkey” takes aim at a great many targets — modern parenting and theatrical delusions among them— and hits them all with devastating wit. But what’s remarkable is Prose’s ability to flesh out her characters in a way that allows you to feel for them even as you laugh at their predicaments. Prose has written hilarious satire before (the National Book Award-nominated “Blue Angel” and “A Changed Man”) but here she resurrects some of the delicate poignancy she displayed in “Goldengrove” (about a girl mourning her dead sister) and blends it seamlessly with humor.
“We are alive for such a short time, and we spend it so unsatisfied, longing for what we can never have,” Margot thinks. “Trying so hard. For what?” Well, for many things. Art. Connection. Even love. Prose’s best advice on navigating this wild ride of life comes, of course, from practical Eleanor: “Don’t be afraid.” After all, we’re all in this together.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.
Our favorite Prose
Francine Prose has written numerous terrific books, fiction and nonfiction. Here are a few of our favorite novels.
▪ “Blue Angel”: A college professor trashes his career over a gifted female student in this National Book Award nominee, which gleefully skewers academia. “Professional inertia, the unexpected sexual tensions of middle age and the psychic terrorism and hypocrisy that infect hot-button issues all stalk the slippery halls of academe in Francine Prose’s engaging new comedy yanked straight from that perplexity: modern life.” (Margaria Fichtner)
▪ “A Changed Man”: When a former skinhead joins a human rights group, he’s not the only one who faces big changes. Prose “turns her penetrating wit to the perils of change and self-indulgence, zeroing in with gusto on charitable organizations and the petty motivations that preoccupy those who work for them.” (Connie Ogle)
▪ “My New American Life”: This post-9/11 novel about an Albanian immigrant assimilating to her new life “is — happily — vintage Prose: cheerfully pessimistic, smart, funny, with characters unnervingly spot-on in their stages of outrage, denial, malaise or disillusionment.” (Ogle)
▪ “Goldengrove”: A young girl weathers the accidental death of her older sister in this uncharacteristically serious, elegiac novel from the author. “Prose’s skillful rendering of the human ability to accept hard truths and move on is a poignant lesson for us all.” (Ogle)
▪ “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932”: This historical novel is based on a real-life female auto racer and Olympic hopeful who was also a Nazi collaborator. “With sure, intelligent narrative and elegant detail, Prose has crafted a story that honors its characters and a pivotal time in history even as it questions the chameleonlike thing we call the truth.” (Ellen Kanner)