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.