Francine Prose’s latest novel Mr. Monkey has taught me something valuable about point of view. While I’m interested in the story Prose is telling, as a writer I’m even more concerned with how the narrative is shaped. Unusual for a novel, eleven chapters each feature a different character, and some appear tangentially in other sections, offering a fuller look at many of these actors.
In fact, actor is an appropriate word here to describe the various dramatis personae since the work starts by taking the reader into the production of the play “Mr. Monkey.” The first characters we meet are performers in this production. But just as actors inhabit different roles and types, so do Prose’s creations exemplify this aspect of being human. We are constantly stepping in and out of various personas throughout our days. At times we keep our more intimate self under cover, especially in our professional environments, such as the classroom or office. Other times, with close friends and family, we can reveal much more of ourselves. Yet always we are in the process of presenting a self that others can’t fully see. And so are the individuals we meet in Mr. Monkey.
As the title implies, the novel revolves around a fictional children’s play based on a children’s book. The play itself, tired from so many productions, becomes a carousel for the characters to circle on, each one connected to “Mr. Monkey” either directly, as actors and creators, or indirectly, as audience members and/or those in some relationship with individuals spinning off from the play.
Prose’s use of this structure has impressed me. She takes the reader briefly inside lives that we otherwise would not inhabit, from a young kindergartner to an aging grandfather. One would think these characters wouldn’t have much in common, but Prose skillfully shows how individuals with such far-flung interests have roots that intertwine, just as actual plants can do under ground. What might seem unrelated on life’s surface actually connects psychologically on deeper levels.
For example, Mario, a middle-aged waiter in an upscale restaurant, has been receiving free tickets to the play (Mr. Monkey) for years from the original creator. Mario loves theater, and he enthusiastically attends the various productions so he can see how original each will be in its presentation. But basically Mario’s life is provisional, his job not fully secure. He shares with many in the novel’s orbit a profound loneliness and isolation. A practicing Catholic, he agonizes with his priest confessor over guilt feelings he experiences about slights he has done to others in his daily life. Yet when a waiter serves us in a restaurant, we normally don’t wonder about his/her life outside of work, and we would be surprised to discover the various worlds that such a person inhabits. We experience this continuously in this novel.
So as a writer, I’ve learned from Mr. Monkey not just how complex we all are and how vulnerable as well, but to trust that if I focus on a small world, as Prose does here, and show aspects of a character that otherwise might go unnoticed, it can reveal universal qualities that most of us can relate to.