As much as we’re self-proclaimed nerds and social maladjusts, bibliophiles also nurse a quiet sense of intellectual superiority, of a cultivated worthiness through wordiness. But what happens when we let these delusions of grandeur overcome our good sense? That’s what Corey Redekop documents in Shelf Monkey, his humourous, but dark-edged exploration of bibliomania.
Styled as the paper trail of fugitive Thomas Friesen, Shelf Monkey is a fast-paced descent into bookish fanaticism as we gradually come to understand why Thomas is on the run, and witness his adoption into a cult of literary purists, the Shelf Monkeys. Through the Monkeys, Redekop offers a satire of the commercialization of reading and of the spoon-fed masses, desperate to pose as well-read while remaining unchallenged by the pablumized nonsense peddled by a feel-good talk shot host.
But Thomas isn’t the only one being seduced by the fantatics. We are too. Shelf Monkey is saturated with allusions and bookish in jokes (collections organized by font, literary alter-egos and halloween costumes, book debates and author name dropping) — each page is an intoxicating literary cocktail. Redekop cleverly gives us a great deal to identify with, and become unwitting Shelf Monkeys.
But just as we are celebrating our new community of word worshippers, Redekop reminds us of the dangers of fanaticism and intolerance . For the Shelf Monkeys are something that should be despised by all book lovers: book burners. With weekly cathartic bonfires, the Monkeys symbolically burn those books that are seen to have no merit, that are “lacking in style, originality, or artistic merit, a book with no purpose but profit, or something that’s just really, really bad.” It’s uncomfortable territory, and Redekop cleverly positions Thomas as the conscientious objector who nevertheless cannot resist the twisted logic (or the peer pressure) of the Monkeys.
I also find it interesting that this is a book masquerading as not a book, for Shelf Monkey is a testament to the awesome power of narrative, and Redekop’s piecemeal collection of emails, public documents, transcripts and case files is not only a fresh approach, but a clever stylistic evasion of the form which has lead these bookworms “astray.” And that a sophisticated accomplishment, that Redekop has crafted a novel that mimic’s the reader’s experience — both embracing and resisting complete absorption into a fictional world.
It’s a ballsy, sharp-tongued and invigorating read, and I stifled many a guffaw on the subway. Read it and get caught up in the story, relish the allusions and injokes. Just don’t let it go to your head.
Need to support your addiction? Join ECW’s Shelf Monkey program to get free books in exchange for your reviews! And don’t worry, no books were harmed in the making of this program.