Susan Minot's first book is presented as a novel, but is actually nine interconnected short stories that, though they have their individual strengths, collectively offer neither the shape nor the satisfaction of a novel. Minot writes in the minimalist style now fashionable in the writing classes; though minimalism may be fine for certain short stories it is simply too arid to sustain the full length of a novel, even so short a novel as this one. There are pleasures to be found in "Monkeys," but the energy of a novel is not among them.
The "monkeys" of the title are the seven children of Gus and Rosie Vincent, who live in a large house in a Massachusetts coastal town. The family is close, yet underneath its happiness there is apprehension. From time to time one of the children comes upon Mum lying on her side and crying; in the evenings Dad is distant, buried in television and drink. The children don't see much affection between their parents, and ward off the tension by retreating into the worlds of childhood. Yet it is home all the same, the most familiar place in their lives and the one to which they always return:
"Sophie continued to wander about the house. Whenever you came home from school or after the summer, you'd wander through the house. They all did it, drifting from room to room alone, reacquainting themselves with familiar things. You touched the stone madonna, picked up the butterfly paperweight. In the silver cigarette box you'd find a marble or a button. You tried the jade lighter with its lighter-fluid smell, never expecting it to work and it never did. But there was always a feeling of possibility. Things might be different. You might find something you'd forgotten about. You opened drawers: there was the brass hook with the eagle wings, the circular matchboxes covered with marbleized paper, a pack of cards in a blue and white case."
Then a terrible thing happens: Mum, still in her forties, is killed in an automobile accident. Dad and the children are devastated: "Now the feeling was this: that the Devil had swooped down and had landed and was lingering with them all, hulking in the middle of the kitchen table, settling down to stay." Life's awful reality has hit the Vincent household head-on, and the familiar suddenly has become strange:
"It wasn't just one thing, a thousand things were missing. The house was filled with missing things, despite the Christmas decorations being up. The girls hadn't known where the decorations were, but Minnie showed them. There were other discoveries in the back room, things they hadn't seen in a long time. The pink evening dress with the jeweled top, chiffon skirts, flowered muumuus from Mum's pregnancy days. There was a shoebox of postcards from Mr. Kittredge. The girls put the decorations where they always got put -- the cre che on the Chinese table in the hall, the laurel looping down the banister, the wooden fruit poked into wreaths. They taped Christmas cards to the stair railing the way Mum had and lit the pine candle. Nothing was the same."
Minot is good at this sort of thing, as both of the above paragraphs suggest: the accumulation and listing of physical detail, of the small artifacts of daily middle-class life that unite and identify families. She lingers fondly over these decorations and cigarette boxes and memorabilia, as if she were making a visit to her own childhood home and describing its contents to an intimate friend. The problem, though, is that the accumulation of such detail is no substitute for characterization and setting, at both of which "Monkeys" is seriously deficient. As in John O'Hara's less successful fiction, the detail turns out to be less than the sum of its parts.
A further difficulty is that "Monkeys" is a book about childhood that never really manages to achieve sufficient distance from children's attitudes, desires and preoccupations. Significantly, the first chapter is told in the voice of young Sophie; though the other chapters are narrated by the author, somehow the childish tone established in the first story is never fully overcome. "Monkeys" is a first book, to be sure, and like many first books it does not venture beyond the experiences of youth; but it is so lacking in irony and worldliness -- whether intentionally or not is simply unclear -- that it leaves one longing for an adult voice. It is a pleasant book to read, but that pleasure is thin and evanescent.