Great Apes, by Will Self

great-apes-by-will-selfGenre: Modern/Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic
Published: 1997
Reviewer Rating: twostars
Book Review by Paul S. Jenkins

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This is a maddening book — sharply written, of course, as one would expect from Will Self — but maddening nonetheless, in more ways than one.

For a start we’re never sure which of Self’s alternatives is supposed to be the real one. Is the blocked artist Simon Dykes a man who experiences a vivid dream of being a chimpanzee? Or is he actually a chimp who’s had a singularly lucid nightmare of being human?

Here’s the premise: Dykes wakes up one morning after a more than usually extreme binge of alcohol, drugs and sex, to discover that his girlfriend has turned into a chimpanzee, as has the rest of humanity. Everyone else is convinced Dykes is a chimpanzee under some kind of psychotic drug-induced delusion of being human. Who’s right?

Self’s novel never gives it away — he uses a twist of narrative convention for his dialogue, allowing his chimps to ‘sign’ with their hands rather than speak, but this truly digital communication is constantly interspersed with the chimps’ vocalizations. Unfortunately, human readers won’t know what the vocalisations mean, so these interactions are always log-jamming the dialogue.

The problem with Great Apes is that Self is proposing his alternative society as very little different from our own, with Volvos, PG Tips commercials and product-branded London life in general much as we know it. But the substitution of chimps for humans seems to be a minor difference, despite their utterly different attitude to sex.

It’s a convention in speculative fiction that an author ‘writes in translation’, so that if the world depicted is different from our own, the language will be different too, but the author ‘translates’ it to English for our benefit. Self’s chimps ‘sign’ in English. We know this because brand names are the same ones we’re familiar with. The PG Tips TV commercial features humans dressed up as chimps. Roddy McDowell stars in a series of Planet of the Humans films. Etc. Frankly, this is crass. The chimps themselves wear conventional clothes, but only on the top half of their bodies, brachiating and knuckle-walking around naked from the waist down, the better to copulate with any other passing chimps as they go about town.

The sex and gender thing is so fundamental to society that it would have created something unrecognizable to us — not this (excuse the pun) barely differentiated urban milieu.

Of course, Self treats it all as a joke, but one gag can’t sustain a novel this long. The writing is at times very fine — at others simply self-conscious (if you’ll excuse another serendipitous pun).

Where authors of other alternate history stories extrapolate big changes in subsequent events from a fairly small ‘alternative’, Self suggests that everything would be mostly the same if chimps rather than humans were the dominant race. He’s not serious, of course, but his novel is written as if the reader is expected to believe it.

In telling this odd story, Self is commenting on human attitudes to life, relationships, sex, drugs, medical and commercial ethics and a host of other issues of concern to contemporary people. His points aren’t badly made, but as speculative fiction Great Apes doesn’t work.

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