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Children’s musical play inspires Prose’s ‘Mister Monkey’

December 1, 2016 GMT

Most of the cast of the frenetic children’s musical in Francine Prose’s new novel, “Mister Monkey,” loathe the eponymous play and its ludicrous dance numbers.

The author of the children’s book the play is based on loathes it.

Even Mario, the theater-loving waiter who’s seen the show multiple times, has to admit to himself that the plot — a love story arising from a court case to defend an unjustly accused chimpanzee — is “imbecilic.” I

In fact, one of the book’s most appealing characters, dinosaur-loving kindergartner Edward, asks at an unfortunately quiet moment in the performance, “Grandpa, are you interested in this?”

Prose said in an NPR interview that her own granddaughter asked her this question at a different children’s play. Having answered, “Yes, I am,” she then felt the need to write the novel so as not to have been lying.

The author of more than two dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,” Prose has expanded this one moment into an imaginative, satirical and melancholy portrait of a group of New Yorkers loosely connected through the play.


Prose pursues the idea of what it means to be interested in various forms through the book’s intersecting chapters, which move from character to character, intimately inhabiting each person’s consciousness and concerns.

Margot, who plays the chimpanzee’s lawyer, Portia, mourns the shame and waste of her once-promising career. Adam, the adolescent playing Mister Monkey, finds himself possessed by mischievous urges that lead to the unraveling of the other actors’ performances. Eleanor, the villain of the musical — an emergency-room nurse in her day job — prays constantly, trying to keep from giving way to irritation and judgment even as she performs surprising acts of charity.

On the surface, the novel makes highly entertaining theater out of the characters’ lives and the increasingly disastrous performances of the play.

Underneath, the book is as serious as the characters are about their obsessive concerns: climate change, evolution and disintegration, failure and loneliness.

The characters grapple with mortality — their own prospective deaths, the imagined or actual deaths of their parents, and the even more dire sense of the oncoming end of the world.

“Uncle Vanya,” the Chekhov play that unites environmental despair with failures of love and connection, threads through the novel, though ironically the main plot twist arising from its inclusion in “Mister Monkey” leads to love rather than patient acquiescence.

As in “Uncle Vanya,” “Mister Monkey’s” central characters find themselves drawn into extended agonizing moments, awkward, wonderfully funny, theatrical and sometimes life-changing eruptions.

In this novel, the imminent end of the world feels as inevitable as the end of a particular life. “Mister Monkey” itself, though, is gripping and engaging all the way through, the characters’ miseries as moving as their fierce attachments to hope and the possibility of unexpected mercies.