BOOK REVIEW / Ape expectations: The Imaginary Monkey - Sean French: Granta Books, pounds 12.99

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The Independent Culture
MOST fiction editors would perk up at a reader's report on The Imaginary Monkey: 'It's about a man who is spurned in love . . . and turns into a monkey]' Aha. Maybe we have something here.

To be fair, Sean French doesn't overstress the gimmicky aspect of his first novel. The part of it that's about being a monkey takes up slightly less than half of the book's scant 156 pages: not so much an imaginary monkey, perhaps, as a notional one. Neither French nor his monkey-narrator ever discovers what sort of monkey he is.

Greg Weaver is fat, balding and unhappy with his body; he then meets Susan, who, though large as well, is happy with hers. Their relationship involves a detailed description of their first night's sex, followed by an account of their break-up so laconic it sounds almost like an admission of laziness: 'There was no narrative thread in the destruction of our relationship, just as there is no narrative in the decay of an abandoned house.'

When Susan gives him the boot, Greg gets drunk and prays for his consciousness to be put into the body of an animal, preferably a migratory bird's, as 'a free transfer'. And so, in Part 2, he wakes up a monkey - not quite what he was after, but a lot less involuntary and depressing than Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis. He enters Susan's house, where she and her new lover take the monkey as a pet. Susan cruelly christens him 'Greg'. Greg the Monkey - obsessively jealous when Greg the Man - can now watch Susan go to the bog or have sex, or can read her diaries. He is most interested in reading about her pre-Greg sex-life: 'Sex is the weak point, the fissure where we can break through all the disguises and get at the truth about life,' he writes.

Unfortunately, a line like that sounds like an excuse for a novel rather than its core, especially in one as wafer-thin as this. Although stylistically scrupulous, Sean French hasn't supplied any intellectual centre around which his narrative can revolve, and has fudged the chance to make a powerful allegory out of Greg's story. Maybe he believes Sam Goldwyn's dictum that allegories belong in the Nile, and is worried that his monkey would get eaten up by one.