Like Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, the spellbinding roman à clef that preceded it, Francine Prose’s novel Mister Monkey is another multiple-perspective marvel, awash in wonderfully realized characters whose lives collide and unfold in parallel. But the similarities end there.
Chameleon Club combined an abundance of absorbing historical detail from pre- and post-occupation Paris with an array of narrators taking unreliability to historic heights. Mister Monkey, by contrast, unfolds entirely in present-day New York City. It spools out from an off-off-Broadway children’s musical disrupted by a child in the audience loudly asking his grandfather, “Are you interested in this?” Each chapter picks up the story from a new angle, re-situating itself in the thoughts of another character positioned outside the spotlight in earlier scenes. Each character gets one star turn and then cedes centerstage to another.
In no particular order, we meet: Margot, a middle-aged actress plagued by absurd costume choices and utter disbelief that she needs gigs like the Mister Monkey musical to make ends meet; Miss Sonya, a young Brooklyn kindergarten teacher who blunders into an ill-advised classroom discussion on evolution and shortly thereafter finds herself in a blind date from Hell; Ray, the author of the classic children’s book mercilessly hijacked by the musical in question, who observes the teacher’s date from Hell first-hand; and several other colorful individuals. Few novels in recent memory careen so delightfully from mid-life melancholy to make-you-squirm comedy.
In anticipation of Mister Monkey’s release today, Paste connected with Francine Prose to discuss perspective-shifting fiction, bad dates and dinner parties, promising artistic careers gone awry and writing without an outline.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club intertwined several distinct voices and richly imagined stories, but given that some of these characters and stories were based on real people and events, it also had historical marks to hit. Writing the layered narrative in Mister Monkey must have been a very different—not necessarily easier—kind of writing experience.
Francine Prose: It was much more fun. With Chameleon Club, I knew where it was going. In fact, one of the reasons I started Lovers at the Chameleon Club where I did [in time, several years before the war and the occupation], was because I knew how dark it was going to get by the end. I wanted to make it clear how bright it was at the beginning.
With this new novel, I keep seeing it described as “darkly comedic.” I never thought of it as that dark. I think the characters at the beginning of the book are going through hard times, in the way that many people do, and then they all have redemptive moments which were big surprises to me by the time I got to the end.
Obviously, what the two books have in common is that they’re told in different voices and the voices all belong to people who are, as we find out, very closely connected to one another, but they move in different directions. Chameleon Club started bright and got dark; Mister Monkey starts a little darker and gets bright.
Paste: At the beginning of Mister Monkey, if feels like it’s going to be Margot’s book, because it starts in her voice and her frustrations are so familiar. It’s hard not to identify with her.
Prose: I’m sure for everyone who has ever been an artist, or tried to be an artist, or has thought about being an artist, Margot is the nightmare that looms in your brain a lot of the time. It could happen to anybody: You wind up playing the lead in Mister Monkey even though you thought you were going to be playing in Chekhov in Lincoln Center.
That was where the book started and then I just got interested in the other characters. There are parts of the book that are much more autobiographical, although of course they’re hidden, than a lot of other things I’ve done. For example, that hideous dinner party the grandfather endures with the parents of the children in Brooklyn. I went to that dinner party. I was the grandparent at the party of parents who was forbidden to speak about anything but the children’s education. I was an eyewitness to a number of things that happened in the novel.
Paste: All of the different perspectives in the book seem real. You draw the young nurse and the teacher just as believably as you create the grandfather at the party. As you’ve gotten older, do you feel like more perspectives have opened up for you as a writer?
Prose: I have more sources of information. For example, the teacher came about in two ways. One of my granddaughters came home and told me that her teacher had said to the class—a very young class—“Every night at eleven o’clock I take a sleeping pill.” I thought, “Oh, really, she said that to you?” That’s where that started. As for the horrible blind date the teacher goes on, I watched that happen next to me at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan. The young woman went off to the bathroom and I watched her date call the friend who had set up the date and say, “She’s like a four out of ten.”
Paste: There are many almost self-contained vignettes in the book—the blind date, the dinner party, the kindergarten Darwin debate, the waiter in the confessional, the nurse and the hormonal child actor at the coffee shop. Given that the book revolves around a musical, did you ever have the sense that you were writing this novel like a musical with individual set pieces?
Prose: No, it was more like I got to the end of a chapter and I thought, “Okay, who interests me the most in that chapter, not counting the person who was at the center of it?” By the time I got to the end of the first chapter and Margot had been, as she says, “sexually aggressed” by the little 12-year-old actor, I thought, “Let’s see how this looks from his point of view.” Then, because the young child who came to the play with his grandfather had made that little outburst in the theater, I thought, “Let’s go back to the [kindergartener and his grandfather], to the audience, and see how it looks to them.” I was just kind of taking this one incident and turning it and turning it, and looking at it in different ways. Then it spun out into New York, and I knew that eventually it was going to have to spin back again.
I really envy writers who have outlines and know what they’re doing, but I just write a sentence and then I write another sentence and I hope it connects to the third sentence. I don’t really know where I’m going.
Paste: With Lovers at The Chameleon Club, it seems like you had to have a master plan with the story inevitably hurtling toward the Nazi occupation of France, the Résistance and treachery of Lou Villars.
Prose: In Chameleon Club, I had history. Lou Villars, of course, was based on Violette Morris, and I knew certain things about her life. I knew she’d been to the Berlin Olympics as Hitler’s guest, and I knew she was assassinated by the Resistance in ’44, so I had these marks that I had to hit eventually. It wasn’t quite so freeform.
Paste: One of your earliest books, The Glorious Ones, was adapted as a musical. What was it like seeing your work recast in that way? I hope it wasn’t as embarrassing for you as Mister Monkey was for Ray Ortiz.
Prose: No, no, no. That was a sort of funny story. [Lyricist and librettist] Lynn Ahrens and composer Steve Flaherty kept trying to do it, but they were having problems putting it together. Finally, they asked if would I come to Lynn’s house so they could play me some of the songs they’d written for the musical. I went with my husband and the whole way there I was worried, because I loved Rodgers and Hammerstein when I was a kid, but I haven’t really liked musicals since then.
Two songs into it, I had tears streaming down my face. Every time I went to the rehearsals, I would just burst into tears, for all sorts of complicated reasons. The music and the songs were really good and very powerful, and of course I couldn’t help noticing that it had been 20 years or more since I’d written the novel, and I was very conscious of how different I was from the person who’d written that novel. Also, they had some problems with it, and I gave them, what seemed to me, a sort of idiotic solution. But it worked, so I felt kind of instrumental or helpful. They did an amazing job. It’s still being performed in regional theaters every so often. Now and then I get a royalty check for $42 or something, so I know it’s out there.
Paste: I read that the original spark of inspiration for Mister Monkey happened at a musical you attended with your granddaughter, where she asked the exact question that Edward loudly asks his grandfather in the first scene, as the play spins out of control: “Are you interested in this?” Starting with Edward blurting out that question for everyone to hear, it feels like there’s a succession of moments where we’re at a silly little escapist play, and all of a sudden, everything’s about to get real. Did you have a similar feeling at the play with your granddaughter?
Prose: It’s yet another example of the fact that kids are smarter than people give them credit for. I felt like I was at one of those films where you put your hand up to your face and watch it between your fingers. It had that horror-thriller aspect to it even though it was a bright little children’s comedy, but for reasons that my granddaughter had no idea what they were. She did sense that something was horribly wrong—she’s a very intuitive kid. But artistic failure is not a big problem for her to worry about yet. She had no idea that these actors thought they weren’t going to be in this terrible play. She probably thought they were really happy to be in the play—it looked like fun.
When she said that in the theater, I recognized the impulse to say the thing that you’re not supposed to say. I’ve known it all my life. I can’t quite make it shut up when I’m writing. Many of the chapters in Mister Monkey are about that in a certain sense: saying the thing that you’re not supposed to say at the parents’ dinner party in Brooklyn, saying the thing you’re not supposed to say to your kindergarten class, saying the thing you’re not supposed to say to your first date, and so on and so on. If I had to look for some controlling common thread that goes through a lot of Mister Monkey, that might be it.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.