Books: Simian says
GREAT APES by Will Self Bloomsbury pounds 15.99
Sunday 08 June 1997
It takes all of two pages to find the first drug reference. A rowing eight, sliding over the river in the space between two buildings, is "like a vast hypodermic, powered by eight, hearty junior doctors". Self is a former art critic with a personal drug problem who has said he wants to "disturb our fundamental assumptions" (which must be the literary equivalent of a beauty contestant's ambition to travel the world and help people). He has written a book whose main character, Simon Dykes, is an artist preoccupied with perspective, who combines crap cocaine with what he thinks is Prozac and slips into madness.
Dykes wakes up one morning to find that his girlfriend has turned into a chimpanzee. The medics that arrive to deal with the hysterical artist are also chimps, as is the entire staff of the Charing Cross Hospital, and the rest of the population. Only a few thousand humans remain, in zoos or in the wild, or in laboratories, where hideous tests are carried out in the name of scientific research. This is not a new idea, as Self knows very well; he quotes Kafka at the beginning of the book, and makes several references to the Planet of the Apes films, and even the PG Tips chimps.
An "author's note" suggests that the book was written by a chimp, but it's cleverer than that: as Dykes becomes assimilated, the narrative voice stops making assumptions based on human behaviour, and its language changes. At first this involves the crude substitution of one word for another - so "silence" becomes "signlence", because chimps communicate using sign language - but eventually whole sentences are reconstructed.
Since Dykes' paintings were about the ordinary seen from a slightly skewed perspective, it comes as no surprise that chimpanzee London looks almost the same as the human one. Self delights in cheap gags like the poster of a chimp with a particularly pronounced forehead, under the name "Liam Gallagher of Oasis", or the young tourist who carries a backpack in the shape of a small human.
These chimps are not cute, however. They fight, groom, mate incessantly and at random, eat shit and live in large, fluid family groupings. When Dykes wakes up to find a giant, furry beast in his bed, we are frightened with him. Later, that same young female chimp reveals to her psychoanalyst that she was abused as a child. The reader realises slowly, and with revulsion, that in the chimp world this means that she was not mated by her alpha (or father) on a regular enough basis. It is a nasty moment, that pulls us back from the personified chimps and leaves us between worlds. The mood is changed only partially when the doctor quotes the great chimp poet Larkin, "They may not fuck you, your mum and alpha ... "
The plot, such as it is, sets up a discussion between the human and his chimpanzee psychiatrist about the differences and similarities between their two worlds; which in turn enables Self to explore subjects like monogamy, Aids and animal rights. The trouble is that he can't resist letting us know how clever he is. When Dykes has a sudden vision of his human son strapped down by chimpanzee scientists in a laboratory, Self spoils the effect by warning us how unsettling it will be. Maybe he wants to alienate us from the story, but that just leaves the reader confused and disappointed. The really shocking thing about this ambitious book is that it ends up being such a bore.
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