Wednesday, July 9

Great Apes - Will Self

In an alternate universe, chimpanzees developed as the dominant species and humans are relegated to test subjects, zoo exhibits, and are observed in the wild by primatologists. Artist Simon Dykes is on the way up - all in all his life's fairly steady, until he and girlfriend Sarah have an illicit and illegal drink and Simon wakes up in a world where everything's familiar except that he's the only human and all around him have been replaced by chimps. Dr Zack Busner, eminent psychologist and true alpha male, sees an opportunity to enhance his standing - he takes on the case of a famous artist who mistakenly, resolutely and inexplicably believes he's human.
The premise sounds fantastic - potential for insights into the human condition, perhaps a little education on the plight of chimps today, examination of how little separates us, and also an exploration of how different we really are.
This last was certainly true - though all the major (Western) events we're familiar with still happened, and London is essentially the same as the London we know (or know of), society's profoundly different - male chimps constantly jostle for a move up the hierarchy, some habits are decidedly simian (including the throng of protegees and subordinates who rush to groom Dr Busner), and human patterns of monogamy are cause for scientific papers.
But I could barely make my way through five pages of this substantial novel. The indulgent, show-offy style I had trouble with when I first encountered Self, is even more evident here - I enjoy coming across new words and expanding my vocabulary, but he not only has a large vocabulary, he is determined to hit the reader over the head with both it and his soaring intellect.
I'd had enough before I hit page ten. See for youself, with a couple of random samplings:
''No matter how much he saw them now, how many times he picked them up from school, how many times he made them oven chips and fish fingers, how many times he petted them, kissed them, told them he loved them, nothing could assuage this sense of wrenching separation, their disjunction from his life. He may not have snacked on the placenta, but somehow the umbilici still trailed from his mouth, ectoplasmic cords, strung across summertime London, snagging on rooftops, car aerials, advertising hoardings, and tied him to their little bellies.''


"The painting was about this: that Babylon contained this moment of explosion, this blatosphere, latent in all its solidity, its municipality.
"And if not Babylon, why not London? And if not the plains of heaven, why not the moors of cumulo-nimbus? The smudged cotton wool that kissed the curved undersides of aircraft as they powered across the sky. Why not, why not indeed? Simon distrusted epiphanies..."

If you like the style, and can see past it to the plot (or even enjoy the baroque, self-congratulatory tone), go at it. For myself, though, pass. - Alex

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