Jadie Jang’s Monkey Around is a snappy, rambunctious urban fantasy that embodies the best of what the genre has to offer. Maya, a monkey shapeshifter of unknown origin, juggles work as a community organizer and a shapeshifting occult fixer-cum-barista amidst the chaos and promise of the Occupy movement. Some shadowy being has been murdering supernats (nonhuman persons in the occult community, as opposed to witches and the like), and Maya has assumed the responsibility of tracking them down and stopping them—by force, if necessary.
And what force! It’s lucky for the Bay Area that Maya is more interested in community-building than anything else, because she can take down most challengers with one hand tied behind her back. Clever, playful, and alarmingly powerful even for a “supernat”—if you’re not at least a little scared of Maya, you’re a mundane or an idiot. Or you’re a terrifying shadow entity that saps people’s souls straight out of them, rendering them unable to fight back. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s terrorizing San Francisco.
Jang’s fight scenes are a delight: dynamic, lovingly detailed, and painstakingly blocked so that they’re easy for the reader to follow. Maya has a wide array of strange powers: she can turn her hair into any object she thinks up (including weapons and clothing), ride on clouds, turn herself invisible, and respond to threats with superstrength and speed. While she can shapeshift into just about anything, including other people, her default form is a monkey, granting her advantageous reach and heft. Her monkey instincts make her a formidable and intuitive fighter, while her human intelligence allows her to utilize her powers in creative and often funny ways. In fact, it’s hard for any opponent to stand up to her; she’s only put in peril when she’s outnumbered or threatened by the soul-sucking shadow that prowls through the narrative.
However, Maya’s physical near-invincibility doesn’t simplify her story as much as one might expect. She’s got a history of youthful bad decisions, including working for a crime syndicate, and a present of tough choices and struggles with her own identity. As an orphan who’s bounced through a long list of foster homes, largely estranged from the family that eventually adopted her, Maya has no family beyond the found kind, and no links to her lineage. Her best guess is that she’s of mixed Chinese heritage, but previous attempts to connect with the culture have gone poorly: in college, a professor tells her off for purchasing the wrong translated edition of the great sixteenth-century Chinese novel Journey to the West, and to this day the book sits unread on her shelf.
What I heard was that I wasn’t really Chinese and didn’t really belong in his class, and was too stupid to understand the reading material anyway. Thinking back, there’s no doubt in my mind that whatever he said exactly wasn’t about me at all, but about whatever had put him in such a vicious mood.
But at the time, it had devastated me. I’d come out to Berkeley hoping to connect with an Asian community in some way—to find my roots—but I felt like such a fraud that I went through all of freshman year nearly failing my Chinese language classes, and not daring to sign up for a Chinese studies class—or to talk to an Asian-looking person. But I’d won enough courage by sophomore year to sign up for the prof’s class … a courage that was the thinnest crust of ice, shattered at a touch.
This produces a dash of dramatic irony for the informed reader: Maya is hungry for knowledge of other shapeshifters, having never met any that share her set of powers. If she only sat down with Journey to the West, a narrative which features as its protagonist a shapeshifter known as the Monkey King, she’d find her origins. However, it’s such a popular and often remixed story that the idea that Maya has somehow made it to the age of twenty-five without otherwise encountering any other iteration of Journey to the West pushes my suspension of disbelief to its limit; whose friends didn’t force them to sit through at least one episode of Dragonball in college? (Can you even call them your friends if they didn’t?)
In the absence of biological family, Maya leans hard into her found family: her friends and colleagues at Inscrutable magazine and the Kearny Street Workshop (APA arts initiatives fictional and real, respectively), and the supernat community centered on the sanctuary/café Sanc-Ahh in Oakland. Jang depicts the diverse communities of the Bay Area (both mundane and supernatural) with care and affection, featuring an exciting array of beliefs, lifeways, and myths. However, Maya always operates at a distance: no matter how much she loves her mundane friends, they can never know what she truly is, and in turn her strange array of powers and intimidating strength cause other supernats to hold her at arm’s length.
But Maya’s real strength is in leaning in. Guided by Ayo, Sanc-Ahh’s owner and a human ex-academic who’s made it her mission to facilitate harmony in the Bay Area supernat community, Maya investigates disappearances and murders while trying to help her college crush Tez reconnect with his sister Chucha, a Doberman shifter who’s joined a local gang. Tez, a shapeshifting nagual, is a tricky character when filtered through Maya’s narration. That college crush isn’t just a thing of the past, and it affects her judgment for the worse.
This becomes a particular problem because Maya is soon called on to protect Tez: his family troubles and the string of murdered shapeshifters swiftly converge with a crash when the Huexotl, a mysterious magical artifact that two gangs are quarreling over, is revealed to be his inheritance. As she tries to rescue Tez from the mind-warping influence of the Huexotl, Maya’s flaws come to the fore, taking meddling to dizzying new heights, ultimately manipulating and pressuring him into binding himself to the Huexotl and thus the land. In her defense—cool story!—this is for the greater good, but it is still totally depriving a would-be love interest of agency.
Everyone around Tez has a stake in his choice, and each character’s relation to their heritage and identity influences their take in complex ways. Despite understanding the power of the Huexotl, for example, Amoxtli, his father’s best friend, sympathizes with Tez and will not force his choice. Amoxtli knows the allure of mobility and optionality: “Speaking two languages, living in two cultures. Combine that with an education and an important skill set: that’s power! Those are the people who are going to rule the twenty-first century. Look at Obama’s people: it’s all folks like that, people who grew up moving between places.”
But as a representative of the disconnected diaspora—the kids who grew up without their parents’ languages and holidays and home cooking—Maya feels shut out of the future that Amoxtli envisions, worrying that, “I wasn’t bilingual, or bicultural, despite being, possibly, biracial. I’d spent half of my growing up just trying to survive, and here I was, 25 years old, and barely able to make my way in the one culture I had.” After working so hard to create a niche for herself, Maya can’t understand why anyone would walk away from a place they belong.
And of course, San Francisco has its own opinions.
Nobody currently in a leadership position in the Bay Area’s supernatural community is indigenous to the Bay Area … This means that the Bay Area is, and has been for nearly two centuries, without strong supernatural guardianship.
The city is a character in its own right; the voice of the Bay speaks to Maya to communicate its own desires and worries. No one has taken spiritual stewardship over it, however, and thus it is in flux; as Ayo explains to Maya, “in ports of entry like San Francisco, where the indigenous populations are so embattled, and where there are constant boom-and-bust cycles which bring new populations in and take old populations out, and where, now, all the old neighborhoods are being gentrified, stability is a much, much bigger problem.” In the absence of strong indigenous traditions, the transience and diversity that make the Bay lively and exciting become a threat to its community.
And the safety of the community is paramount. That’s the driving force behind the whole book: the idea that we must contribute to the place we choose to live, even when we are asked to sacrifice something for it. The thesis is weakened by the fact that Tez is forced to give up on all his dreams of travel and adventure in favor of taking responsibility for the spiritual well-being of San Francisco; all Maya has to give up, meanwhile, is her chance to get into Tez’s pants. These sacrifices are not on the same scale. Though Maya agonizes over her actions, the story could have benefited from more time spent in the denouement unpacking the effects of her choice on Tez’s life. While Maya will be able to move on with her life, Tez is committed to decades of hard work to come. Here we see the dark side of Maya’s #diasporafeels as her jealousy over Tez’s fixed position prevents her from sympathizing fully with his loss: “He had no idea what a privilege it was to belong somewhere, to actually have people who knew you, and expected things from you, and depended on you. I’d had to create that for myself, and every moment it threatened to fall apart.”
Despite all this introspection, the narrative is almost relentlessly fast-paced. The whole story takes place in less than a month (which really puts the body count into perspective), and when things wrap up, they wrap up fast. My head was spinning as we headed into the final chapter, since right up until the final pages I’d been banking on secondary love interest Todd-the-Kitsune getting a late-game reveal as the Big Bad puppet master controlling the primary antagonist. (He fled the climactic battle against the soul-sapping nalusa chito and hid for a week afterward! He has a Tuxedo Mask facility for appearing in the right place at the right time! What was I supposed to think?) Given that the shadowy villain is never revealed, the door is open for a sequel.
I can’t help but wonder when a theoretical sequel would be set. The story takes place in autumn 2011, during the height of the Occupy movement, and the characters frequently reference the sense of hope that President Obama has inspired for them. It’s a weird feeling when a book is a “period piece” for historical events you’ve lived through. Maya visits the Occupy Oakland encampment regularly to volunteer and attends protests. Though the details of these events are largely elided in the narrative, the mood of the story stems from the uncertain, hopeful spirit of the time.
One protest is described in detail, however: the reoccupation march from the Oakland Public Library to Ogawa/Grant Plaza on October 25, 2011, in the wake of the police’s early-morning raid on the encampment.
The cops had tear gas ready, gas masks on. Ordinarily, this would have concerned me; any smoke makes my eyes burn in the wrong way. But then the word went down the line to wet a scarf with vinegar to fend off the tear gas, and bottles of vinegar were passed around; and that gave me an idea. Todd pulled an extra cloth for me out of his bag, but I plucked a hair and changed it into a respirator. He grinned, and Monkey grinned back. I pulled out another hair and made goggles for myself, and then offered him a pair. He took them. I made Ayo a pair as well. I made a mental note to remember goggles in the future.
When the police begin firing flashbangs and tear gas, Maya loses her temper and takes flight on a cloud, targeting the police helicopters. She invisibly antagonizes the chopper cops by knocking and shouting, putting them further on edge. There’s a sense of Monday-morning quarterbacking reality itself in this incident, a sort of power fantasy of what could have been. The use of fictional superpowers at a very real event—an event in which multiple protesters were injured by police violence—brings up both wistfulness and discomfort for me. Wouldn’t it be nice if Maya had been there to hand out respirators and goggles to people? Aren’t we lucky that she wasn’t there escalating the situation?
There are other crosscurrents, too. I’m uncertain how to parse, for example, the passing mention of Scott Olsen, a veteran injured by the police during a protest, as “the kid we’d seen go down with a head injury.” On the one hand, Jang could not place Maya at the protest in question and not mention such a significant event; on the other, something feels sort of disrespectful about erasing his name from the narrative, even though it would have also been extremely weird to actually name him. The novel at times doesn’t seem to have sufficiently considered the complications inherent in this sort of alternative near-history, or the timeline-ripples that Maya’s actions have the potential to create.
The book as a whole, however, is not a bummer. It’s a rowdy good time, full of the excitement and the expansive sense of possibility that characterize this time period in my memory. It’s a welcome escape from the bummer in the midst of which I sit, full of the knowledge of what happens on the other side of the Obama years. I have the spoilers, and they’re not great. But I also have hope that recalling movements like Occupy can reawaken and reinspire us. And maybe Maya is still kicking ass somewhere today.