Shelf MonkeyJuly 20, 2007 at 11:32 am | Posted in books | 3 Comments
Shelf Monkey, by Corey Redekop (ECW Press, 2007; $18.95)
The inquisition is back, but this time it’s not agents of the papacy examining us for religious orthodoxy, but a bunch of self-proclaimed “booknerds” on a moral mission to rid the world of low-brow literature.
This, at least, is the premise of Shelf Monkey, an intriguing thought-exercise of a novel by first time author Corey Redkop.
The Shelf Monkeys, it turns out, are a group of book store employees and rabid bibliophiles, who entertain themselves by getting together on moonless nights to burn unworthy texts amid much hokey pomp and ceremony. Their nemesis is one Munroe Purvis, an Oprah-like talk show host who has gotten filthy rich by pandering to his audience, recommending a series of uplifting (and unreadable) “triumph of the human spirit”-style novels, all published by his own company. And Thomas Friesen is our narrator and anti-hero, one of the slightly less insane Monkeys, the only one who recognizes that it’s all fun and games until someone winds up with a criminal record.
It’s hard not be seduced by Redkop’s premise — who among us hasn’t dreamed of committing a particularly crummy piece of fiction to the kindling pile? Wouldn’t it be nice to snap the Dan Browns and Danielle Steels from the fingers of philistines we see on the metro, replacing them with heartier literary fare? And I know that my rage flares when I see yet another article extolling the virtues of reading, all reading, any reading, as if passing ones eyes over little squiggles on a page were itself an inherently edifying experience, and the actual content of those squiggles were completely beside the point.
Yes, we all (that is to say, everyone who is likely to be reading this blog) have a bit of the literary snob in us, and Redkop’s Shelf Monkey gives voice to our every guilty fantasy. Living vicariously through his characters, we can be little tyrants, arbiters of taste, forcing our own favorite books upon the unwilling masses, while casting popular favorites into the fire.
It’s a potent and surprisingly satisfying fantasy, but it runs into trouble pretty quickly — for it turns out that even this self-selected group of elite readers is occasionally troubled by differences of opinion. Is Anne Rice a genius or a hack? Is The Life of Pi an elegantly wrought fable or a piece of pseudo-intellectual drivel? And the chasm yawns wider still when some of the Monkeys decide that attacking defenseless books isn’t enough — they’re going to straight to the source, with a madcap plan to punish and destroy Purvis himself.
It is here that the book begins to dither a bit, as the characters go back and forth about a dozen times, trying to decide whether to go through with a plan that is a foregone conclusion to the reader (especially since the whole book is told in flashback). It is also in this section, however, that some of the book’s most interesting ideas are expressed, as Thomas wrestles with himself and his fellow monkeys over the ethics of aesthetic judgement. The debate culminates in a rousing speech Thomas gives in defense of Purvis, arguing that even the lowest browed literature shows us a side of ourselves that we have a duty to examine, even if we’d rather stuff it out of sight.
It would have been nice, at this point in the novel, if Purvis himself could have stood up and spoken for himself — I would have liked to see trash-lit defended by someone who actually appreciates and enjoys it. Unfortunately, Redkop has made Purvis such a loathsome and duplicitous cretin that no such redemption is possible. It is, to my mind, a missed opportunity.
Still, there are many other pleasures to be found in Shelf Monkey — Redkop has moments of real wit and he isn’t afraid to push his plot to entertainingly ludicrous extremes. If, ultimately, he winds up glossing over some finer philosophical points about censorship, elitism, taste, and judgement, he at least reminds us of the pleasure, joy, and even lunacy a true love of books can inspire.
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