Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose, tells the story of a children’s play and the stories of its cast and audience members, who pass each other on the streets of New York City. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, and a bigger story emerges as we see how each character views the moments when their lives intersect.
First we see the play from Margot’s point of view. She is an older actress reduced to a comic character in a children’s play, and she resents it, longing instead for more parts like the one she played at Yale, Sonya in Uncle Vanya. When she thinks of those days, she believes that “the fact that Margot got the part of Sonya proves that she hasn’t imagined or invented the promising girl she used to be.”
The next point of view is the monkey’s, played by “a twelve-year-old actor and gymnast and singer the size of an eight-year-old who can take direction like a grown-up and do triple flips” and who has fully embraced his character while also struggling with puberty to the point that he is driven to add a bit of mayhem to each night’s performance:
“He wants to spit or sneeze into his paw so that, at the end of the song, when Jason and Danielle skip out onto the stage and dance his sorrows away in a fruitcake jitterbug, each of them will grab his paw and get a slimy surprise. Adam knows it’s a terrible thing to want. Does it make him a terrible person?”
Adam has a crush on Margot, which manifests itself at each performance by his terrorizing her on stage. She, of course, has no idea.
One of the saddest points of view is that of the grandfather who took his young grandson—a child who talks in the theater–to see the play. When he takes the grandson home, he is invited to stay for dinner, along with a number of affluent NYC parents, and all they can talk about is their children. The grandfather is a retired curator of paintings and when his conversational ventures keep falling flat, he finally resorts to sarcasm when a woman asks if a painter he has mentioned is “anyone I would have heard of?” His reply, which he is immediately sorry for, is “tell me all the painters you’ve heard of, and I’ll stop you when you get there.” Later we hear about this dinner from the grandson, Edward, who thinks that he “did hear his grandfather try to change the subject from Hugo eating a candy bar to peanut allergies in general. No one understood what he was saying. They just thought he was a goofy old man.”
Even sadder is the story of a nice girl named Sonya who teaches kindergarten and one night accepts a blind date, during which she gets a text meant for one of her date’s friends saying “Dude, on the scale of one to ten, she’s a 4.” In a later chapter, however, told from the point of view of the waiter, whose name is Mario, we see what else was happening:
“If the girl’s a keeper, he’ll do a thumbs-up when he hands me the wine menu, and I’m supposed to bring him something high on the list. But if she’s a dog….we go to Plan B. I bring the guy something drinkable but cheap. Check, please. Call it a night.
So the girl arrives. She’s pretty, beautiful skin, everything about her is sweet sweet sweet, but….She looks like a kindergarten teacher instead of the lingerie model the guy obviously has in mind. He knows, and she knows, and Enzo and I know, and everyone in the restaurant knows she’s not what he thinks he deserves. So I bring them a bottle that’s rated ten out of ten by the staff for the red most likely to give you a crippling sinus headache.”
We get a little of the story of the author of the children’s book that the play is based on, a man named Ray who is introduced while riding in a NYC taxi, when
“the driver asks Ray if he wants to let the evening in. It takes Ray a while to understand what he means. It’s a goddamn poem. By all means let in the evening….The driver pushes a button, the windows roll down. Has someone told him that evening is English for the carbon monoxide, grit, and whatever airborne toxins blast into the car as they stop at the red light at Park and 125th? English for the bone-shaking rattle from the train trestle, the smell of stewing garbage, the half-delicious, half-crematorial smoke from the halal food truck, and a plume of rage from the mother pushing a stroller halfway into the intersection: her semaphoric fuck you to the traffic? What blows in through the open window is like a concerto in which each musician is playing whatever note he wants, all of them playing at once.”
It turns out that Ray, a Vietnam vet, wrote a sweet little children’s book about an orphaned monkey who finds a happy life with a family in NYC as part of his effort to banish a horrific image from the war:
“The family of dead monkeys beside the path through the jungle. The dad and mom and two baby monkeys hung from the trees, in nooses, executed, like humans. What sick fuck would do that?”
And it turns out that Mario the waiter is a big fan of live theater:
“He’s often wanted to say something after a play, to wait near the stage door and tel an actor or director how much he’d admired the show. But he’s never known how to begin. Just the thought of it makes his heart race.”
Ray gives Mario tickets to every new production of Mister Monkey, and we find out that he has seen the play so many times he can now “overlook the imbecilic plot and find out if the director has done anything interesting with the unpromising hand he’s been dealt.”
Of course, it turns out that Mario thinks Margot is splendid in her role in the latest production of Mister Monkey, and “he wants to tell her about the production of Uncle Vanya that made him fall in love with the theater.”
And of course in the end, Margot and Mario find each other–mostly because of an anonymous letter with a quotation from Chekhov that the director of the play wrote to the costume designer but then sent to Margot one day when she looked like she needed something to lift her spirits.
Interestingly told and intricately plotted, Mister Monkey is fun, fast-paced, and clever.