Wednesday, August 8, 2007
By Matt Ruff
HarperCollins. 230 pp. $20
Ethicist and philosopher Peter Singer has an interesting thought experiment involving a runaway train. You, the volitional observer, note that a hurtling locomotive seems destined to wipe out five people on the tracks. But with the flick of a switch, you could send the wheeled missile down another track where it would kill only one unsuspecting victim. Do you do it? Does virtue compel you to sacrifice one unendangered person to save the lives of five in peril? It's a sticky moral issue.
Now, leaving Singer behind, let's alter the experiment a little and assume that all the potential victims are "irredeemably evil." Suddenly the equation changes. Wiping out five baddies is the higher good, right?
Finally, suppose that you didn't have to wait for a runaway train to take out the evildoers. Suppose that some actions on your part -- committing a simple undetectable little murder here and there -- would make the world a better place. Are you onboard with this program?
This is essentially the thought experiment that Matt Ruff conducts in his grimly comic sci-fi novel "Bad Monkeys." But unlike Singer, Ruff, a canny entertainer, fleshes out his experiment with ax-wielding clowns running through the streets of Las Vegas, ray guns that deliver strokes and heart attacks, warring secret organizations and enough paranoia, double-dealing, plot twists and mortal thrills to fuel a dozen le Carre novels.
A woman in her 40s named Jane Charlotte is being held under psychiatric detention in a Las Vegas police station for the murder of a man known as Dixon. While being interviewed by Dr. Vale, Jane readily admits to the crime but explains that it's justified by her role in "a secret crime-fighting organization," a task force devoted to extinguishing evil. Like any bureaucracy, this organization has various branches: Catering, Malfeasance, Panopticon, Black Helicopters. Jane belongs to "The Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons," or, colloquially, the Bad Monkeys, the wing that executes bad guys. ("Bad monkey" is also the chosen terminology for the villains, in a very apt and clever fusion of hunter and hunted.) Jane has been caught by the police during one such mission.
The book alternates between real-time discussions involving Dr. Vale and Jane in the interrogation cell and Jane's long flashbacks. We witness her whole life from her wayward childhood and her first glancing teenage encounter with the organization, through her misspent young adulthood and eventual full-scale recruitment and training right after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Jane's ultimate test comes when she must go up against the Troop, the evil counterpart to her team. That's where the ax-slinging Scary Clowns come in, among other lurid players.
But guess what? Jane proves to be the most unreliable narrator possible. Her life is a bundle of self-deception and misdirection, which Ruff wraps inside so many ingenious fake-out layers that readers will find their heads spinning with awed delight by the book's frenetic climax.
Ruff's model here, I believe, is G.K. Chesterton's surreal fantasy, "The Man Who Was Thursday" (1908), whose anarchist and anti-anarchist groups offer a useful analogue to today's terrorists and pedophiles and other assorted nasty chaps. From this classic foundation, Ruff skillfully alludes to dozens of other works in a similar vein. We're led to think of Ian Fleming's James Bond books and "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." And perhaps even "Get Smart," since many of the organization's tactics are patently absurd, such as a debriefing that occurs as a catered picnic atop a hotel roof. Along with his chosen themes, Ruff's comic-book brio recalls such graphic novel landmarks as Grant Morrison's "The Filth" and Brian Azzarello's ongoing series "100 Bullets." A bit of superhuman gunplay toward the end is surely a tip of the hat to "The Matrix" and its sequels.
Ruff sees nothing dubious about a secret police society, mercilessly exterminating evildoers. His utopian organization comes off not as a corruptible, selfish enterprise, but as a trustworthy bulwark against the willed chaos and entropy of the bad monkeys. The motto of the organization is "Omnes mundum facimus" (We all make the world). He dares to make a black-and-white, morally sharp-edged world where the only ambiguity is which side you're on. Jane Charlotte's failure -- for ultimately she does prove all too human -- is not a lack of passion or commitment, but rather a reluctance to abandon self-interest. It's a test most of us would fail.