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Shelf Monkey

by Corey Redekop

A decade ago, when Oprah launched her book club juggernaut, stuffy literati worldwide – especially authors of books not chosen – knee-jerkingly condemned the idea of one person dictating what the masses should read. Those gripes were largely silenced when, a couple of years ago, she put Faulkner and Tolstoy back on the bestseller list. But in his debut novel, Corey Redekop, a London, Ontario-based librarian, drags the debate back to life.

Oprah is not directly satirized here. The imagined nightmare in Shelf Monkey is a talk show host named Munroe Purvis whose taste in literature is far worse than Oprah’s on a bad day, and yet who starts a publishing company, selling millions of truly awful books. (We know they’re awful because Shelf Monkey’s narrator, a bookstore employee named Thomas, tells us they are.)

Shelf Monkey is framed as a series of e-mails from prison, where Thomas is incarcerated for an unknown act of violence against Purvis. We hear how Thomas is recruited by co-workers into the Shelf Monkeys, a Fight Club-meets-Fahrenheit 451 cult of book lovers who gather at night to burn unworthy books. The premise is a lighthearted wink to all those bibliophiles who rail against the mainstream and the modern-day triumph of marketing over talent. Redekop has some fun, for example, with a scene where Thomas is almost smothered to death by the giant inflatable head of Munroe Purvis, and later when Thomas imagines having sex with a colleague through the prism of popular fiction. (“Tom Clancy sex was mechanical, very technical, dry and Republican…”) These are just two examples where the book’s dark comedy and witty language play directly into its themes to make the satire sting.

Unfortunately, Shelf Monkey loses its focus, laden down with Thomas’s moral quandaries and a lengthy, clichéd friendship drama that could have been pulled out of a bad YA novel. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but when this book takes itself too seriously, the forced sentimentality comes a little too close to resembling the very thing it aims to lampoon: a daytime talk show.