As a teenager I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" in a collection of ghost stories and it became one of my favorite works of short fiction. Of course I know that the story can also be interpreted as an example of psychological realism about a mad woman having hallucinations (not to mention as a feminist allegory), but for me Gilman's tale will always be first and foremost a ghost story. For this reason, when I teach "The Yellow Wallpaper" in Freshman English I'm always taken aback by the refusal of most of my students to even consider a supernatural interpretation of the events. They want the story to be realistic. They want the protagonist to simply be nuts. It's obvious that even though we've read the exact same words, my students and I have actually read radically different stories.
It seems to me that tales like "The Yellow Wallpaper" that skirt the boundaries of genre and that are in fact open to both mainstream and genre readings are the epitome of that ill-defined, fuzzy set we call Slipstream. Is a story realistic or fantastic? The answer may vary from person to person and depend more on the life experiences and specific reading protocols that each reader brings to the text than on anything in the story itself. Matt Ruff is a writer who loves to skate that boundary. His last novel, for example, Set this House in Order, concerned two people with Multiple Personality Disorder and described the interior worlds of its protagonists in enormous and amazing detail. The novel won the Tiptree Award for gender bending SF. The award was somewhat controversial, however, both among the judges and among those who attended the Tiptree panel at which Ruff's novel and the other Tiptree finalists were discussed. Some readers, it turned out (and one of the judges for that matter) simply didn't believe that the book was a fantasy. They felt that they'd read a realistic portrayal of life with MPD.
Ruff's new novel, Bad Monkeys, also skates that boundary. Jane Charlotte is a young woman who has been arrested for murder, but she claims to be a member of a secret organization dedicated to fighting evil. Some parts of the Organization do this in peaceful ways. Her division, The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons, nicknamed Bad Monkeys, however, simply kills people who have been deemed worthy of death, using a special gun that simulates a heart attack or stroke. Ruff's tale is constructed as an extended interview between Jane and a prison psychiatrist. As in "The Yellow Wallpaper," it's easy to read the book as simply the rantings of a dangerous mad woman. The powers Jane claims for her organization quickly move far beyond those of the CIA or even James Bond's MI6; we're talking what appears to be paranoid delusions on a Philip K. Dickian scale here. Gradually, though, we learn the young woman's life story. Growing up with a bitter and abusive single mother and a near angelic (and hence favored) younger brother, Phil, Jane quickly chose a life of small-time juvenile delinquency. Forced to watch her brother whenever her mother was working, she frequently left him unattended for extended periods of time and under potentially dangerous circumstances. Eventually Phil was kidnapped by a pedophile serial killer. Although his body was never found, he was presumed dead. Jane was taken from her mother, who blamed her for Phil's disappearance and threatened to kill her, and placed with more reliable relatives, but her course was already set.
Oddly enough, child abuse remains an ongoing theme in her life. While still in high school she helps capture a second pedophile serial killer. Later, as a young adult working a dead end job, she becomes sexually involved with a string of boys whom she takes in off of the streets. Once recruited to be a Bad Monkey her targets also seem to be men involved in immoral activities with children. It quickly becomes clear that the Organization has been watching Jane for a long time and that their powers of observation border on the superhuman. When, as a teenager, she tracked the second pedophile to his home, she received a cryptic phone call, on his phone, from what we later realize must have been the Bad Monkeys. There are in fact hints that the Organization may have been aware of Jane since childhood. Of course it's even more likely that her entire story, at least the parts about the Bad Monkeys, is a delusion. Her psychiatrist makes it clear that, as wonderfully complex as her story is, it's full of holes and frequently contradicted by the evidence. Jane, however, as one might expect from someone suffering from delusions and clinical paranoia, appears to have no doubts about her story, being absolutely certain that any contradictions are simply the result of the all-powerful Organization having laid a false trail. The only reason she was allowed to be arrested, she claims, is that she murdered someone whom she wasn't authorized to kill.
Ruff goes out of his way to make it easy for his readers to see Jane as simply insane. She receives messages in newspaper crossword puzzles. She believes that the Organization's eyes are virtually ubiquitous, to be found in literally billions of locations, including the eyes of the pyramid on dollar bills. She claims that her various handlers are all named Robert, and have clearly symbolic last names like True, Wise, and Love. She believes that her last operation involved a special unit of the organization, called Scary Clowns, who literally dress like clowns and use axes as their weapons of choice. Ruff intentionally piles on a variety of unbelievable events and details, making things more and more wild and crazy, stuffing Jane's narrative to the bursting point with reasons for his readers to believe that she's simply insane. Or is she?
One of the blurbs on the back of the uncorrected proof pages I'm working from refers to Bad Monkeys as "Philip K. Dick writing Silence of the Lambs." The PKD comparison is pretty apt. As in a Dick novel, this is a world where nothing is what it seems, you probably are being watched, and events that hover on the border between the science fictional and the supernatural are commonplace. The comparison to Thomas Harris's bestseller, however, is less appropriate. Harris's genius lies in his ability to put you right inside Clarice Starling's head, make you believe that someone like Hannibal Lecter could really exist, and basically scare the bejezzus out of you. Although a number of murders are depicted in Bad Monkeys, they are unlikely to trouble either mainstream or genre readers—there is no frisson of horror. Ruff intentionally distances us from his characters and their actions, in part by having everything be a retelling of past events, in part by playing up the apparently symbolic nature of much of what occurs and, in part by simply making those events unbelieveable. We may be prepared to accept a secret agency that has spy eyes just about everywhere, but we're not prepared to believe in droves of secret agents who wear clown suits and wield hand axes, even in Las Vegas. Elvises, perhaps, but not clowns.
Ruff is clearly playing a game with his readers. How far can I go, he is implicitly asking, before I lose you? Before you cease to believe that Jane's adventures may in fact be real rather than a paranoid fantasy? How many times can I turn the tables? Make you reconsider? Jerk your chain? It would be interesting to give this book to ten readers of genre fiction and ten readers of mainstream literary fiction, let them read to the beginning of the final chapter and then ask them to guess how the book will end. Are all of the bizarre, intensely paranoid and highly unbelievable events Jane has narrated real or is she simply delusional? Will Ruff answer this question, show us which side of the border his novel is really on, and give us closure, or will he pull a "Yellow Wallpaper" and leave us guessing? As I'm sure you've already realized, I'm not going to tell you. I do, however, strongly recommend this fun-house mirror of a book to both genre and mainstream readers alike. Happy skating.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.