Book review: Each chapter of this novel — with a musical at its center — is told from the point of view of a different character.
by Francine Prose
Harper, 285 pp., $26.99
Francine Prose’s “Mister Monkey,” a novel about a very bad musical, leaves you with the feeling you have after watching a really good musical: exhilarated, lightened, maybe even humming. Its characters dance around each other, tangoing and twirling, voices chiming out in solo after solo — until it all comes together in a moment of perfect harmony. You read it with the uncanny feeling that you aren’t alone; that there’s an audience reading with you, and that bursting into applause at the end might not be inappropriate.
“Mister Monkey” is not only the title of Prose’s 18th novel (among her works: “Household Saints,” “A Changed Man,” “Blue Angel” and most recently “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932”), it’s also the name of the family-friendly musical at its center. Based on a popular children’s novel about a monkey adopted from Africa by a New York family, “Mister Monkey: The Musical” is in its “umpteen-hundredth” revival off-off-off-off Broadway, in a weary “soon-to-be-replaced-by-condos theater beneath the High Line.” Nearly everyone involved with the production — one so low-rent that the cast provides most of their own costumes — is ready for it to end.
Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, giving the impression of a spotlight that briefly illuminates one person — one monologue, one life — before moving on. There’s Margot, the veteran actress whose road from Chekhov to “Mister Monkey” has been “paved with concessions, good manners, and graceful acceptance.” There’s Leonard, a gentle retiree who takes his beloved grandson to the play and can sense the “manic desperation” behind much of the performances; the disappointment felt by actors who hadn’t planned on ending up in that play, in that theater. There’s Lakshmi, the show’s grandly titled costume designer (she sewed the monkey costume from a thrift-store bedspread), who dreams of writing her own autobiographical one-act. And there’s Edward, and Miss Sonya, and Ray, and Eleanor, and Mario, and Adam — and even, in a brief, pivotal chapter near the end, Mister Monkey himself.
All of these voices create a sort of daisy chain — each person is loosely connected to the one who came before, and the one who comes next, like a song list in a musical. And by its end, Prose has created something greater than the sum of those individual voices: a show and its audience, a community, a city. A goofball comedy about making bad art, about the poignancy of old age gazing at childhood, about hopes and dreams and settling and why an emergency-room nurse might race from her shift to arrive, still in scrubs, at a stage door. In short, it’s about life, set to music — and a monkey, too.
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