Essays

Primate Lit: On Suspension of Disbelief and Monkeys in Fiction

By posted at 6:00 am on March 5, 2015 5

"Gremlins? Never heard of..."

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about stories with monkeys. I’ve been thinking about them for a while, actually, but until now it’s been a mostly passive project. Maybe “project” is too lofty a term. I haven’t really been looking for these stories. I haven’t been actively keeping track of them. Occasionally, though, I’ll come across one, or I’ll remember one that I read years ago. Basically, I’ve just been noticing them — monkeys — and for whatever reason they’ve had a tendency to linger in my mind. It wasn’t until recently, when I re-read “A Girl with a Monkey” by Leonard Michaels, that all of these monkeys began to organize themselves.

covercovercoverCurrently I have two main categories. The first involves stories that feature monkeys as prominent characters or focal points. Haruki Murakami’s “A Shinagawa Monkey,” for example, in which a woman keeps forgetting her name, and as the story unravels we see that really the woman isn’t “forgetting” her name at all — it’s being stolen by a monkey. Or take the title story of Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys or George Saunders’s “93990,” from In Persuasion Nation, which both use monkeys to get at issues of scientific experimentation and animal cruelty. Or Andrew Alexander’s “Little Bitty Pretty One,” which first appeared in Mississippi Review and which I encountered in 1999’s New Stories from the South. Alexander’s story begins, “My sister once ordered a monkey from the back of a comic book,” and over the course of the story — only a few pages — we witness the monkey’s life in the house, from its arrival via the mail to its burial in the backyard, and we get to know the narrator and his family in a way that would not have been possible without that monkey. What all of the stories in this category have in common, I would argue, is that their very existence depends on their monkeys. Sure, they could have been written without them — with rabbits, say — but without the primate-primate connection between monkey and human — human character and human reader both — these stories wouldn’t be the same at all.

covercoverAnd this first category is also where I would place books like Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Benjamin Hale’s The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, two different takes on the “civilized” primate attempting to navigate the human world, in the tradition of Franz Kafka’s story “A Report to an Academy,” but these are chimpanzee stories, and technically chimpanzees are not monkeys — chimps being Great Apes, along with gorillas and humans and orangutans, while the many varieties of monkey are a big branch or two away on the primate family tree — but I fear we’re already getting off track here.

I fear, too, that this first category might seem a bit too simple, obvious, reductive. It might feel like a catch-all, an easy way of dealing with an enormously ranging assortment — stories that use monkeys for laughs, for sympathy, for mystery. It’s a category that, if the doors were open to film, could comfortably house things as disparate as Monkey Trouble and Planet of the Apes, which I’ll admit might strike some as problematic, but here again I’ll argue that what both of these stories depend on — wherefrom they derive either their comedy or their terror — is that primate-primate connection. Insert humans and the stories fall apart; insert another type of animal and the stories fall apart.

It’s the second category, though, that I’m most interested in. Here we have stories that don’t ask so much of their monkeys, stories that could arguably exist without these animals and suffer no serious loss of esteem. I’m speaking now of stories like Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The focus with this one is usually The Misfit or the grandmother or the gruesome finale, but what I appreciate is the quieter oddity of moments like the family’s arrival at Red Sammy’s restaurant, where there’s “a gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a chinaberry tree.” The monkey gets four sentences. We see him retreat into the branches of his tree as the family approaches, and as the family exits, we see him again, “busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy.” And that’s all — just a roadside monkey, a strange little sight along the road to doom.

There’s also Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs,” another often-anthologized piece, the story of Earl, car thief and writer of bad checks. The story starts with Earl fleeing Montana — headed south in a stolen Mercedes with his girlfriend, his daughter, and his daughter’s dog Duke — and it ends later that night, not much farther south, with Earl musing alone in the parking lot of a Ramada Inn, asking the reader to join him in wondering about how it is that we end up in the places that we do. This has always struck me as a bold move, this ending, a risky move on the part of the author. My favorite scene, though, happens early on, when Earl’s girlfriend, Edna, pours herself a drink in the passenger seat and says, apropos of nothing, “Did I ever tell you I once had a monkey?”

Then for two pages Edna explains how she won a spider monkey in a dice game, how after a week she “got the creeps” and couldn’t handle the monkey staring at her at night anymore, so she “went out to the car, got a length of clothesline wire, and came back in and wired her to the doorknob through her little silver collar, then went back and tried to sleep.” And then when Edna woke up, she found that the monkey “had tipped off her chair-back and hanged herself on the wire line.”

To me it’s the most emotionally affecting moment in the story, much more so than any of the human drama. And it’s also a moment that allows for the most intriguing instance of characterization for Earl: when Edna finishes her story, describing how she put the monkey in a trash bag and took it to the dump, Earl says, “Well, that’s horrible,” which is obvious and true. But then he goes on: “But I don’t see what else you could do. You didn’t mean to kill it. You’d have done it differently if you had.”

You’d have done it differently if you had — gets me every time. There are countless ways Earl could have responded in this moment — he could’ve stopped with “You didn’t mean to kill it,” which would have, again, been obvious and true, perhaps even reassuring in its banality — but instead this is the way Earl seeks to console, by pointing out that there exist other, more purposeful ways a person might choose to kill a monkey.

As much as I value this scene, though, as much as I appreciate this unsettling peek at Earl’s character, I doubt anyone would argue that Edna’s monkey plays any real, significant role in the story’s plot. Same for the monkey outside of Red Sammy’s place. But I do think these monkeys have utility in terms of narrative. In O’Connor’s story, if nothing else, that monkey has an atmospheric effect. It tips the narrative universe just a bit further off-kilter. In a world where it’s possible to find a monkey chained to a tree beside a highway restaurant — and for that fact to warrant not a whole lot of attention, for that monkey to seem more or less ordinary — maybe it’s also possible, or at least less unlikely, to end up crossing paths with the escaped convict you read about in that morning’s newspaper. There are other things O’Connor does to make that crossing of paths seem plausible, other bits of foreshadowing and so on, but, to my mind, there’s a certain expansion of possibility that occurs with that monkey around. And you could say the same for Ford’s story: what can’t happen in Edna’s life, or in the world of the story, if it’s the sort of place where a person might roll some dice in a bar one day and wind up the reluctant owner of a monkey?

Then there’s the Leonard Michaels story “A Girl with a Monkey,” which I now see as a sort of pinnacle in my type-two classification of monkey stories. It’s the story of a man named Beard, an American traveling alone in Germany, who falls in love with a woman named Inger. Inger is a prostitute, she takes “classes in paper restoration at the local museum,” and she has a monkey. The monkey never actually appears on the page though. It gets referred to occasionally in conversation, as when, during a disagreement over whether Inger will go home for the evening or spend a third night in the company of Beard, he says, “I’m not your monkey.” To which Inger says, “You think you’re more complicated.”

And this isn’t the only place where a reader might feel compelled to compare Beard to an ape. There’s a baseness to his character, and that combination of the tender and the grotesque that Leonard Michaels’s characters often have — it’s easy to imagine a reader saying, “Oh, I get it — it’s Beard that’s the ‘monkey’ here, he’s an animal…” And it’s true that along those lines the story does have things to say about distinctions between humans and animals, notions of innocence and purity and ownership and whether or not “all sentient beings were equivalent.”

There’s something happening, too, at the intersection of the animalistic and the sexual. We see it creeping up when Beard “remembered that Inger had talked about her monkey. The memory stirred him, as he had been stirred in the restaurant, with sexual desire. Nothing could be more plain, more real. It thrust against the front of his trousers. He went into a café to sit for a while and pretend to read a newspaper.”

No doubt there are significant discussions to be had about these things, important conversations both literary and sociological, but here again I’m more interested in the monkey’s effect on the story’s atmosphere, which is very real even if the monkey itself never appears.

The closest we come to actually seeing this animal is when Beard goes to meet Inger at her apartment. But Inger isn’t there. Instead Beard finds her roommate, Greta, who has no idea where Inger is. Beard doesn’t believe this, but Greta insists. She tells him, “Please go look for yourself. No clothes in her closet, no suitcase, no bicycle.” And the monkey is gone too, the monkey we never see and whose very existence we’d have cause to doubt if not for Greta. “I was an idiot to let her move in,” Greta says, “a girl with a monkey.”

Again, in no way does the story’s plot depend on this monkey. The story could very nearly exist as is with each mention of the word “monkey” replaced with “goldfish” or “parakeet” or “turtle.” That monkey has an effect, though. It sets the story in a world in which a young woman might have a monkey as a pet, for one thing, which, yes, I realize, can and does happen in reality, but there’s something more going on here. There’s something about how little attention that monkey gets — from Inger, from Beard, from the narrator — how ordinary it seems. Never once does Beard say something like, “Wait, what? You have a monkey? Are you serious? Where’d you get it? Can I see it?” All of which would be reasonable responses, I think, in the world that I live in. Maybe this downplaying speaks to the degree of attraction and obsession Beard feels — his feelings for Inger are all-consuming, tunnel-vision-inducing to the point that he can’t even register the oddity of her having a monkey waiting for her at home. The whole thing has a way of making me feel like there’s something wrong with me, because it seems like I’m the only one who sees something strange going on here. I mean, the story isn’t even called “The Girl with the Monkey,” an article-shift that would confer some uniqueness to the situation. It’s “A Girl with a Monkey,” as in, possibly, one of many. But the story is confident — it takes the monkey as a given and moves on, and so I do too.

There are echoes of Anton Chekhov’s lady and her pet dog here too, I think, another story of a man surprising himself with his devotion to a woman he meets abroad. There’s nothing remarkable about a dog as a pet though, and there’s nothing remarkable about the way Chekhov’s story winds up either — by which I mean the events are entirely believable, inevitable, deflating, and saddening in exactly the way that life can be — though there is certainly something remarkable about the way Chekhov so deftly executes that ending.

But there is something remarkable about the way in which “A Girl with a Monkey” comes to a close, with Beard hoping for one thing and finding something better — something approaching the unlikelihood of a faulty memory leading to a wrong turn, which then leads to a startled cat leaping from a basket, which leads to a car accident, which leads to a run-in with an infamous criminal — and what I’m thinking now is that maybe it’s the monkey that allows such things to happen. Improbable animals priming us for improbable events. It isn’t just a matter of the strange being made to seem ordinary, it’s a matter of the extraordinary being made to seem possible.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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5 Responses to “Primate Lit: On Suspension of Disbelief and Monkeys in Fiction”

  1. Jack M
    at 12:38 pm on March 5, 2015

    Try the Leigh Kennedy story, “Her Furry Face.” It’s the last word on human/primate interaction.

  2. Matilda
    at 6:52 pm on March 5, 2015

    The Woman and the Ape by Peter Hoeg.

  3. Benjamin Hale
    at 12:04 am on March 6, 2015

    “technically chimpanzees are not monkeys — chimps being Great Apes, along with gorillas and humans and orangutans”

    I appreciate your zoological correctness! If I had a dime for every time I bit my tongue when someone called a chimp a “monkey”…

  4. Don Zancanella
    at 2:46 pm on March 10, 2015

    I have to mention my category one story, “The Chimpanzees of Wyoming,” which appeared in the 1996 O. Henry collection and in my book Western Electric (U. of Iowa Press), which can be read here: http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1030&context=uipress_isfa

  5. Kim Horner McCoy
    at 9:24 am on October 1, 2016

    Do you think something similar is going on when Werner Herzog includes monkeys in his films?

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