For the readers who are familiar with the previous works of Francine Prose, her latest novel, Mister Monkey, might come as a surprise. Inspired by Prose’s own experience of sitting through a fiasco-ridden children’s musical, Mister Monkey tells the tale of an off-off-off Broadway show that has outlived its fame, and it’s the funniest work Prose has published since 2011’s My New American Life.
Like the famous children’s character Curious George, Mister Monkey is a pet chimp living in the city. But unlike George, who always manages to get out of trouble with his charm, in this musical, Mister Monkey is accused of stealing a wallet and is put on trial for larceny.
Sad and funny at the same time, this outlandish storyline is enriched by an assortment of narratives told by the people involved with the musical, each giving their own perspective on the production: Margot, the Yale drama school graduate who is coming to grips with the fact that her career has been reduced to playing a lawyer defending a monkey in a failed musical; Adam, the 12-year-old playing the monkey onstage, who can’t seem to separate his adolescent emotions from his stage life; and Ms. Sonya, the Xanax-popping teacher of young Edward, who goes to see the musical with his dying grandfather. Then there is Ray himself, who wrote the Mister Monkey children’s book that inspired the play as a way to get over PTSD after his deployment.
With each narrative, Prose reveals a new connection between strangers, turning a seemingly silly story into a profound example of the human psyche. What’s more, her wit and dark humor make this a serious page-turner. Mister Monkey is nothing short of a delight.