Monday, May 12, 2008

Book 5 – Great Apes

By Will Self

"Darwin was wrong. Man's still an ape." -- Gene Kelly

Most reasonably intelligent and educated people familiar with evolution know that humans are part of the same family as the great apes, made up of gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees. And it's fairly common knowledge that humans and chimps are at least 99 percent identical in terms of basic biological chemistry. Heck, there's even been speculation about the possibility of producing a `human-chimp' hybrid with artificial insemination, without any help from genetic engineers (if it hasn’t been done already). It’s a wonder that our genetic cousins don’t get much respect, instead getting demonized or exploited in popular culture.

But these aren’t necessarily the most perturbing facts. Spend enough time observing chimpanzees or bonobos in a zoo, and you quickly understand how very few differences there are between human and chimp society. Having long been fascinated by these parallels, I had great anticipation in seeing how Will Self would use these ideas in his novel. He did not disappoint, as he took the ideas and went for a Swiftian marathon run with them.

Simon Dykes has all the makings of a talented and successful painter in London. Controversial in both life and art, he’s hedonistic, brooding, emotionally arrested and self-destructive (hmm, a bit like the author himself). He has a love-hate relationship with his inner social circle of conceptual artists, agents and art dealers, not to mention a stormy partnership with his girlfriend, Sarah. One fateful night after partying, he has animalistic sex with Sarah while high on coke and ecstasy, and wakes up the next morning in a world where every single person, himself included, has completely transformed into hairy beastly chimpanzees. The only difference is that Simon knows he’s still Simon, a man trapped in a chimp body in a chimp world, while everyone else keeps acting like bloody stupid apes. They don’t speak, instead they pant-hoot, gesticulate and sniff each other’s arses. They take 2-minute orgy breaks in public. On the bloody street, for chrissakes. Naturally, Simon goes apeshit (or humanshit, rather) and is soon thrown into a mental hospital. Soon enough, our tragic protagonist is taken under the wing of Dr. Zack Busner, who in turn becomes obsessed with the strange case of Simon and his human delusion.

Although the central premise is not exactly original (a kind of satirical and Sacksian inversion of The Planet of the Apes, which is playfully referred to as The Planet of the Humans in the novel), it does allow the author to flesh out the man vs chimp theme in many clever ways. There are many brilliant passages throughout the novel and you get the sense that the author is having a helluva hoot, and a scatological fun time, writing this up. I found his “observations” about social hierarchies and niceties the most humourous:

The three chimps greeted one another with stentorian pant-hoots…
Busner, ready to lash out at any impropriety, was quite disarmed when Franklin presented to him with great and groveling alacrity. The big chimp pushed his arse towards Busner, while most of his upper body was hugging the path, flicking the while.

“’Hoo’ Dr Busner, what a pleasure to encounter you and your magnificent ischial scrag – I’ve been an admirer of yours for many years.”

Despite my overall enjoyment, my only criticisms were that the novel, at just over 400 pages, was too long. The “Ape Who Mistook Himself For a Man” idea can’t be sustained for such a length and would have made a far better novella. My interest would wax and wane whenever the story dragged on too much, or a darkly funny section would pick things up again. The ending, where Simon and Dr. Busner, journey to meet the chimp version of Jane Goodall who's studying the "wild humans of Gombe", was a bit obvious as well as somewhat of a let-down.


dsgran said...

You know, I've seen the cover in the bookstore and thought it clever, but haven't picked it up to see what it was all about. That sounds like a great story. While the ending does indeed sound like a cop-out, i'm a big fan of goodall (I'm doing work with her Roots and Shoots organization), and kind of look forward to seeing her satirized in a novel like this!

Thanks, gonna pick it up before heading back to the land of shit-book-choices!

Jarrett said...

Thorough write-up!

This does sound interesting, but what I am most intrigued with is the instigating incident - the animal-like sex with Sarah while on drugs. Was this transformation a punishment for immorality?

Were there any asides back in non-ape land? Documenting Simon's progress to recovery?

And did, at the end, he get to go back to his normal life?

I guess what I am hanging up on is the actual transformation. Couldn't Self have just started off with a character who thinks he's a human? Why does he lead us into it as a bad drug trip?

And could the thrust of the whole book actually be a metaphor for gender?

400 pages does seem too long, and makes em think I will have to pass.

beemused said...

dsgran -- wow cool! have you actually met Goodall? what kind of work are u doing?

jarrett -- yes I had the same thought, and the punishment subtext is there (perhaps reflected in author's own penchant for decadence), but I think the message is more that immorality, esp sexual immorality, is a human construct etc. for ex, when Simon is in ape-world, sexual child abuse is when the father deprives his daughter by NOT screwing her everyday.

once Simon is in ape world, there's no turning back except his occassional flashbacks to when he was 'human'.

I think Self was playing with the Zhuangzi theme of "did Simon dream he was a chimp, or did a chimp dream he was Simon?" because in the end, you're not sure which world is the realy one.

also agree that it would've made the story stronger if the protagonist started off as a character who seems human at first, but then you realize he's actually a chimp.

Lantzvillager said...

I guess this book supports the premise that the apes should be better treated than other animals because they are closer to humans genetically. It's sort of a speciesism by genetic connection.

Not sure this is my kind of read but thanks for the comprehensive review.

Buzby said...

This sounds like a good. I particularly like the cover and your review is awesomely written.


beemused said...

why thanks!

dsgran said...

@meez- No, I haven't met her. Kim saw her speak last year, she comes to shanghai fairly often. The president of her shanghai chapter of R&S happens to also be the mother of one of my students, and that's how I got involved. My video class did a promotional documentary DVD for them, which they're using for fundraising and networking. The students did an awesome job!

@jar- This does sound interesting, but what I am most intrigued with is the instigating incident - the animal-like sex with Sarah while on drugs.

color me shocked. ;D

Doc said...

That cover is disturbing.

If you want to read a great short story on the same subject, sort of, read Kafka's "Report to the Academy."