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Killing moons

Bad Monkeys A Novel Matt Ruff HarperCollins: 232 pp., $20

August 05, 2007

MATT RUFF'S imagination has spawned kangaroo trials administered by telepathic purebred dogs, a Volkswagen Beetle haunted by Abbie Hoffman, a one-armed 181-year-old Civil War veteran and a virtual reality programmer suffering from multiple personality disorder. But Ruff's fourth novel, "Bad Monkeys," finds the Seattle author working against these wild imaginative instincts, settling for ho-hum mayhem in the form of an interrogation transcript buckled together by short omniscient chapters.

The interlocutee in question is one Jane Charlotte, who shares the name of Philip K. Dick's twin sister, confessing her life of murder to police psychiatrists. Jane, working by day at convenience stores, is involved with an underground organization called Panopticon, which specializes in killing "Bad Monkeys," people deemed disreputable by the shadowy higher-ups and subsequently whacked with an NC (short for "natural causes") gun that disguises these homicidal hits.

But take away the gimmicks and "Bad Monkeys" is a pedestrian thriller. Kid on the lam grows up and falls in with the wrong crowd, turns to crime. Ruff asks us to believe in the preposterous idea that there are secret instructive messages in the Fresno Bee and, worse yet, that there is a secret camera in a Marlene Dietrich poster in Jane's bedroom recording all of her sexual trysts. Ruff can't seem to decide whether he wants to be Baron Münchausen or Philip K. Dick.

There's more persuasive vivacity to be found in nearly any issue of Brian Azzarello's "100 Bullets," an ongoing comic book involving comparable criminal conspiracies. Instead of playing Jane and her victims against each other, as Azzarello would, Ruff makes Jane curiously detached from the killings, not even deigning to collect a paycheck for her "second job." There are reasons for this, which are later explained, but the reader is left in the meantime with lumbering execution.

Ruff's rotwood prose reads more like bad pulp fiction than convincing conversation. "We need you in the present day," says Bob True, one of the Panopticon superiors. When Jane stakes out one of her victims, she observes a "shopping bag full of soup cans [which] caught him square in the face." I didn't realize it was possible for even Cyrano's proboscis to be elegantly entangled in a web of Warhol, but no matter.

Ruff also recycles ideas from his previous novels, diminishing his narrative depth. He has a nonconformist father, like "Fool on the Hill's" Walter Smith, say, "You had a life. It was hoped you'd do something with it." Near the end, the multiple personality disorder carefully researched in "Set This House in Order" resurfaces in a crude good-Kirk, bad-Kirk-style revelation that had me pining for the enemies within Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club" or Doestoevsky's "The Double."

Ruff does show flashes of the philosophical underpinnings found in his previous work. Near the end, Jane begins to question her motives, asking: "But what if evil was more than just a label for antisocial behavior?" Ruff also includes some asides on altered-state theory and "the Nod problem" -- a glaring continuity error in the Bible.

Ruff has achieved something with these tricks, but his talents are better suited to expansive worlds rather than this embedded chicanery. Had this novel embraced more of the odd, it would have contained fewer Nod problems.

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