Suspend Your Disbelief

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The Love Song of Monkey, by Michael S.A. Graziano

After an experimental operation goes mysteriously right, Jonathan finds himself at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, chained to a statue of Venus. He needs no food and breathes water like air. Bonus: He's immortal. Jonathan's meditations on love (namely his unfaithful wife, Kitty, who thinks the experiment failed) take him on an adventure to the mid-Atlantic ridge, into a volcanic shaft, and back to land--where he becomes a demon statue, a nimble thief, and even a super-hero.

Michael S.A. Graziano’s novel The Love Song of Monkey (Leapfrog Press, 2008) is a darkly comic yet irrepressibly hopeful story that disturbs as it charms; this novel may be slim in size, but like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, it’s dimensionally transcendental. I read it cover-to-cover during one day’s subway travels, and its infusion of strange calm rescued me, for once, from commuter’s rage.

After an experimental operation goes mysteriously right, once-terminally ill patient Jonathan finds himself at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, chained to a statue of Venus. He needs no food and breathes water like air. Bonus: He’s immortal. Jonathan’s meditations on love (namely his unfaithful wife, Kitty, who thinks the experiment failed) take him on a self-seeking adventure to the mid-Atlantic ridge and into a volcanic shaft. Back on land, he becomes a demon statue, a nimble thief, and a super-hero, making his patient way back to human connection.

In the book’s title, Graziano alludes to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and to the 16th-century Chinese classic Monkey: A Journey to the West. I learned about the second from the author’s own comment on a Goodreads post where another reviewer-reader and I shared concerns about the title. (My position: I’d loved the title and the book, but I couldn’t make sense of the connection–particularly when coupled with the novel’s end, which refers to Jonathan, sans explanation, as “Monkey man.”) Like any English nerd, I can recite much of “Prufrock” from memory, but I’ve never read (and hadn’t heard of) Monkey, which, in Graziano’s words, is about what “a kind of human-monkey deity chooses to do with his immortality.” The author went on to mention that in reprints he plans to include a quotation from Monkey to accompany the current epigraph from “Prufrock.”

At first I thought, that’s not enough, but then I reconsidered, remembering the marvelous epigraph to Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead; before that James Loewen quotation, I knew nothing of sasha (the living-dead, those remembered by the living) or zamani (the dead, those whose acquaintances have all died, too). That epigraph teaches us how to experience Brockmeier’s novel (about, in part, an global pandemic) and serves as a powerful tonal undercurrent. Because we’ve read, even briefly, about sasha, we understand the population fluctuations in this mysterious city, and because we’ve read about zamani, we fear and feel for the sasha as deeply as we do as for the living.

What The Love Song of Monkey‘s Jonathan chooses to do with his immortality is certainly at the heart of Graziano’s novel, so I’m voting for that second epigraph in the reprint–not to justify the title, but to illuminate it. In the meantime, I’m going to track down a copy of Monkey…and highly recommend The Love Song of Monkey to FWR’s readers.

About the Author

Michael S.A. Graziano is a professor of neuroscience at Princeton University. His novella Hiding Places was published in the New England Review, and his novel The Seclusion Zone (2007 finalist, William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition) is under contract and will be published soon. Graziano is also the author of The Intelligent Movement Machine (2008, Oxford University Press) and the co-author (with his sister Lisa) of Cretaceous Dawn, a dinosaur thriller (2008, Leapfrog Press).

Join the Discussion

  • Celeste

    I grew up with the Monkey King stories–he’s a classic cultural trickster, like Brer Rabbit or Anansi, and his exploits, which are many, are as well known in Chinese culture as Grimm’s fairy tales are in the West. So that’s the first thing I thought of when I heard the title. I’m interested to see how Graziano rewrites/builds on/toys with these stories and have added this to my to-read list.

    For those who haven’t yet encountered the Monkey King, there are plenty of children’s versions out there if you’re not up for the whole saga of Journey to the West–it’s quite an undertaking!

  • astameshkin

    Thanks for the recommendations, Celeste! Perhaps in wanting more explanation I’m asking for too much hand-holding (as well as displaying the woefully Western-centric nature of my library). It’s not like every reader is going to get every reference, and I agree with PHD’s argument that we should write for our ideal reader and not over-explain.

    One of my favorite moments in The Love Song of Monkey is when Jonathan discovers that all the animals who underwent this same experiment (which operates on the molecular level) have also survived and become immortal. The scientist who invented the procedure is unable to comprehend his success; he assumes his subjects (including Jonathan) are all brain-dead, when in fact they’ve begun their immortal life in a state so sublimely peaceful that they need not speak, move, or even blink. What looks like a catatonic body is in fact something super-conscious of the world around it. This reminds me of the quest in the Hitchhiker’s Guide books for the answer to life, the universe and everything. A super-computer finally provides it — 42 –, prompting the seekers to ask, “But what’s the question?”

  • Celeste

    I guess the real thing we have to decide as writers is how important it is that readers “get” the references we’re making. From what you’ve said so far, it sounds like The Love Song of Monkey has lots to offer a reader, even if he or she doesn’t see the Monkey King subtext. And ideally, that’s how all books should work! I strongly believe that allusions, subtexts, and references of all sorts should enrich the text, rather than being the magic decoder ring that you *must* have in order to understand what’s going on…

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