Francine Prose's latest novel, "Mister Monkey," comes from a mortifying real-life moment: She was sitting in a darkened theater with her 4-year-old granddaughter. The play on stage was an "off-off-off-Broadway," low-budget children's musical. And while it was intended to be a comedy, Prose said it was laced with the sadness of the actors.
"I kept thinking: None of these actors ever thought they would wind up playing in this," she said.
During a brief lull in the action, her granddaughter tugged on her arm and asked: "Grandma, are you interested in this?"
The entire theater heard — the audience, the actors, everyone.
There was only one thing Prose could do.
"Of course I said yes," Prose said. "Now I feel as though I wrote ["Mister Monkey"] so I wouldn't be lying to her when I said that."
"Mister Monkey" spins off from there. It follows the cast of a doomed rendition of a children's musical, also titled "Mister Monkey." It is "children's theater hell," Prose writes. Each chapter follows a different person tangled up in the musical's grasp, including a precocious kindergartener who blurts out the very same question Prose's granddaughter did in that quiet theater.
There's Margot, the middle-aged Yale-graduate who dreams of her Chekhov days but can only land a part in "Mister Monkey." There's 12-year-old Adam, sweating under the weight of a dust-mite-ridden monkey costume and grappling with some very adult feelings. There's a hapless costume assistant, and an ER nurse who stars in the play as a hobby.
Prose hopscotches among them, and also out into the audience, following the kindergartener, his grandfather and his kindergarten teacher. She even leaps, for a moment, into the all-seeing mind of Hanuman, a monkey god from the Hindu tradition. With each chapter, she unleashes her dark wit on the modern world, inspecting shards of broken dreams and deep longings.
"Mister Monkey" is more comical than many of the novels for which Prose is known, but she doesn't see a distinction.
"I find myself gravitating towards the thing that I can't get out of my mind, the thing that just lodges there," she said. That could be the fate of France in World War II, as in her novel "Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932," or it could be a children's musical.
"If you're writing about love and artistic success and failure and people's hopes and dreams and redemption — in a way, it's just as serious as a book with apparently larger themes."
Prose will be at the Twin Cities Book Festival this weekend, in conversation with Charles Baxter at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. Full festival details are available from Rain Taxi.
Francine Prose picks her five favorite darkly funny novels
There's still a misconception that women aren't funny, Prose said, even as talents like Tina Fey destroy that stereotype with every breath. When it came to picking five favorite comic novels, Prose highlighted some of the women writers she loves most.
"After Claude" by Iris Owens
The novel follows Harriet as she breaks up with her French boyfriend in the first chapter. Or maybe it's him who does the breaking-up? This book is "laugh-out-loud. You have to put it down and wipe the tears away" funny, Prose said.
"Two Serious Ladies" by Jane Bowles
Two upper-class women decide they need to live a little in this cult gem.
"Loitering with Intent" by Muriel Spark
A young woman takes a job writing a couple's memoirs and find herself making up facts about their exploits — until those facts start coming true.
"Le Divorce" by Diane Johnson
Prose recommends anything by Johnson, but if she had to pick just one, "Le Divorce" is it. The book follows two sisters who take a long-awaited trip to Paris, and become ensnared in criminal and romantic mischief.
"The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant" by Mavis Gallant
This collection was just re-released, and Prose penned the introduction. Gallant is a little-known treasure of the literary world whom Margaret Atwood hailed as "a terrifyingly good writer."