Joyce Carol Oates, The Triumph of the Spider Monkey (Fawcett Crest, 1976)
[originally posted 13Mar2001]
Joyce Carol Oates’ tenth novel keeps her in the same subsection of society of which she is fond of writing, but strips away the usual veneer of middle-American bourgeois life she uses to make her less savory subjects shocking. The book is told from the perspective of serial murderer Bobbie Gotteson, the spider monkey of the title. Gotteson is short, overly hairy, and extremely agile; while he is never depicted as handsome, he has a kind of charisma that allows him power over women of all shapes and sizes, from his long term relationship, an ex-movie star named Melva (other than Gotteson and two others in the novel, no last names are ever used), to the nine nursing-student inhabitants of a California bungalow who end up hacked to death.
The novel takes place while Gotteson is on the stand, being tried for some of his crimes (we’re never told how many, nor his total body count). The line between his responses to the District Attorney’s questions and his long, rambling flights of fantasy is intentionally blurry, and often we are unaware he’s actually speaking until the DA breaks in to refute some, or all, of whatever story Gotteson is telling at any given time.
It’s short and simple, far more spare than the novels Oates is known for, and the lack of normalcy-veneer that makes her great novels great takes the edge off much of what’s here. Still, the story of Bobbie Gotteson is a supremely disturbing one, in no small part because Oates is very good at showing how fine the line is between the normal dreams of fame and fortune experienced by us all and the twisted megalomania that inhabits Gotteson’s brain. I suspect that a hundred years from now, when Oates is firmly established in the literary canon, The Triumph of the Spider Monkey will be little more than a footnote in her bibliography or a minor, somewhat neglected volume in the leatherbound Complete Works. It is, however, what it is, and it achieves its presumed goal with chilling effect. Recommended for Oates fans, but those looking for an introduction to the Mistress of All Things Twisted would probably be better served with one of the trilogy of novels which made her name and kept it in the public eye: Cybele, them., and Because It s Bitter, Because It Is My Heart. ***