The Triumph of the Spider Monkey by Joyce Carol Oates

I would like to thank Lydia for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Titan Books/Hard Case Crime

Price £7.99

Published – Out Now

Inside the mind of a maniac…abandoned as a baby in a bus station locker, shuttled from one abusive foster home and detention centre to another, Bobbie Gotteson grew up angry, hurting, damaged. His hunger to succeed as a musician brought him across the country to Hollywood, but along with it came his seething rage, his paranoid delusions, and his capacity for acts of shocking violence.

We have a soft spot in our literature for interesting villains in our genre. Loki, Moriarty, Dr Lector all do horrible things, but we seem to revel in their exploits, speeches and attitude. In reality these people really aren’t someone we would ever want to be in a room with and genre seems to shy away from them. In the Triumph of the Spider Monkey Joyce Carol Oates presents a trip inside the mind of a man responsible for murdering nine women and I found it a shocking and disjointed trip into insanity.

Bobbie Gotteson is on trial when we meet him, and he’s finally in the public eye. Slowly he starts to relate his exploits in California; often interrupted by defence or prosecution. An abandoned baby, depressing childhood abuse, then through his teenage temper he finds himself in prison and there prone to further abuse from inmates. A dependency on one criminal is created but he seems to be passed around and then abandoned in LA. An attractive man yet often ridiculed for being on the short side Gotteson seems to attract offers of Hollywood stardom but is everything what it seems?

This is a very much a trip through a murderous character’s mind and in this case it’s all about the delusions that Bobbie sees/thinks.  The writing style is frenetic and there are time jumps, side-tracks and events that we are told by third parties clearly did not happen. I found this a very uncomfortable read as we are clearly seeing Bobbie’s world and it is a disturbing one. A key part of this is unfortunately the violence towards women. Bobbie is someone women can seem to want to talk to, but his inner rage and misogyny take over and it ends in appalling violence. There is no remorse and he seem to think he is actually helping his victims.  Its hard for me to not think of Ted Bundy as we see this handsome man with movie star looks happily singing to the crowd one minute and then stalking and killing the next to make himself feel better. Here the villain isn’t obvious and I’m not sure if I’m uncomfortable deliberately so I can see what these men are or is this a novel not really exploring violence just revelling in it.  Scarily I wonder if the villain was more composed and wittier would I see this differently and what does that say about me?

On the one hand I clearly see why Joyce Carol Oates is a lauded writer. To cast that spell and give me such an insight into a serial killer’s mind is feeling far more accurate than the gilded halls of Dr Lector but I felt it really didn’t explore how people like Bobbie came about. Yes we see some references to his childhood and prison abuse and perhaps ultimately Bobbie’s story isn’t one of redemption because he is the one who chose to do what he did but it feels ultimately more a thought experiment than a  novel with a lot to say about violence against women in society.

It’s on the cusp of a horror tale in the way we see Gotteson’s world and his view of it. Certainly, one of the more disturbing tales I’ve read in a while at the same time just a bit disappointed it didn’t aim a little higher, but this is a novel originally from the early seventies and our understanding of criminal behaviour was in its early days. A novel now would be very different.  If you want to read Oate’s early work, then this may be a fascinating but disturbing detour.  I initially upon finishing was thinking I’d not enjoyed it but its one of those books that whirls around the mind afterwards.  I can’t say I LOVE it, but I think I now respect what it was aiming for even if ultimately, I’m not sure it landed where it was aiming for.