The impetus for writing this novel was an incident that occurred when the author took her granddaughter to a way-off-Broadway children's musical. The budget was so low that the costumes were threadbare and the lighting director had trouble keeping the spotlight on the actors on stage. In the midst of what she thought would be a quiet moment, the 5-year-old asked her grandmother if she was interested in this. As it turned out, everyone heard, and Francine Prose had the presence of mind to answer loudly that yes, she was.
This reminded me of an incident I experienced in St. Martin-in-the-Fields that occurred during a movement pause at a noon concert. A child's voice rang out asking whether it was time to leave and the question brought the proceedings to a halt. Everyone laughed, including the orchestra. An embarrassing moment turned out to be a sweet one that united us all.
The story of the play and those connected as audience members, cast, author, and director is told by each in turn in their own chapter. The musical is an adaptation of a much-loved children's book written a generation earlier about a monkey orphaned by poachers. He is brought to the US and adopted by a widowed father and his children. He is accused by a wicked girlfriend of stealing money, arrested, and defended by an attorney named Portia.
In the current musical Portia is forced to wear a rainbow colored wig and an otherwise ridiculous costume, the monkey is a gymnastic boy who discovers his adolescence as the production proceeds, and the wicked girlfriend has a day job as a nurse in an ER. Ray, the author of the children's book hates this adaptation and we hear his life story including that he uses the meager proceeds from its various productions to dine out at a very high end restaurant as compensation for the humiliation. Ray gives his comp tickets to a long-time waiter who is a theatre-lover and then we hear his story. The ripples from this event go as far as the story of a teacher whose student is the child who disrupted the play. The child shares the story at school and a fraught discussion of evolution ensues.
One moment that illustrates the strength of this novel is told by the waiter Mario about a bit in the play that originated with Portia dropping her prop cell phone by accident. She instinctively kicked it off stage and that was adopted into the production. Mario says
Everyone wants to see their devices get what they deserve, to watch the buzzing, implacable demons kicked to the curb for the cunning and deceit with which they have made us unable to live without them and stolen our freedom and our ability to be silent and alone. The audience has seen the forces of good vanquish the fire-breathing dragon in our pockets, the micro-zombie that eats our brains. Their eyes have seen the glory of Saint George in a rainbow wig.
At the outset this novel seemed to be the story of a sorry group of individuals who are easily skewered, but eventually a wonderful bigger picture emerges and we come to feel a kinship to this odd collection of humanity.
Francine Prose, Mister Monkey, Harper, 2016, 304 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.