The Triumph of the Spider Monkey

By Joyce Carol Oates

The Triumph of the Spider Monkey, a novel by Joyce Carol Oates
Book details

A lot of crime fiction is told from the prospective of an investigator. We follow them as they stumble across clues and finally get their suspect. This method provides structure and cohesion as even amateur sleuths follow some sort of logical pattern. Authors such as John Sandford and his Prey series dip a toe into the mind of a killer, alternating between police and criminal. Back in 1974, Joyce Carol Oates went all in with The Triumph of the Spider Monkey, a novel told entirely from the point of view of a self-described maniac. Is there a reason more books are not written like this? Perhaps writing from within the mind of an insane person is a little tricky for a reader to follow?

Bobbie Gotteson is a machete wielding serial killer who has finally been caught after butchering several women. With his rugged good looks and musical talent, he somewhat of a celebrity provocateur. With this in mind his diaries have proved of interest to the general public. Entitled The Triumph of the Spider Monkey they paint a disjointed and nonlinear picture of the mind of a maniac.

As a reader it is good to try and embrace some experimental fiction once in a while that will stretch your mental muscles and could leave you pleasantly surprised. The work of Chuck Palahniuk has always proven a harsh read, but seeded with genius. After reading Spider Monkey it feels like Oates could have been an influence. This is not an easy book to read; in terms of both content and structure, but to a reader willing to pursue it, will find there is worth.

The nonlinear narrative is just one element that makes Spider Monkey a slightly confusing read. Add also Gotteson’s flights of fantasy and outright lies and it is hard to know what is real and what is false. The secret is to let your mind flow with the book. All of what Gotteson writes is real to him, therefore the reality and the fantasy mix and it does not matter what is truth. Oates is able to create a story of sorts within the ramblings. You may not be as seduced by Gotteson as some of his victims where, but you certainly understand why he has an attraction.

Shades of the mid-70s influence this book. With Gotteson’s obsession with music and the fringes of fame, you get the sense that Oates had the Manson Family in mind when writing. You get that nonsensical violence mixed with an almost sad need for recognition. Telling the entire tale from inside the head of a killer is a bold move and does make this a very different book from the norm. However, it is also hard to read and does not make the most sense. Rather than having a narrative that packs a punch, you are instead hit with moments spotted throughout the book.

The Hard Case Crime edition of Spider Monkey comes with an additional companion piece from the point of view of a survivor and private investigator. This should have offered a little more coherence to what happened on Gotteson’s killing spree, but it too is confused. It is perhaps Oates’ style that is the mismatch and not the story. If you are looking for a curio from the mid-70s to enjoy, then this book will scratch that itch, but for a slightly more coherent examination of counter culture try the likes of Fight Club or Rant from Palahniuk.

Written on 25th July 2019 by .

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