By Will Self
Grove/Atlantic; 416 pages; $24
It was a bit weird, reading and thinking about England’s young literary phenom Will Self, just as Diana’s death and its aftermath were flooding the airwaves. Newscasters spoke of the Flower Revolution, of the possibility that England might at last stop clinging to ancient protocol and allow its citizens to display the normal range of human emotion. But as I read Great Apes it occurred to me that stiff-lipped reserve hasn’t been the sole enemy of emotionally demonstrative English do-gooders. Other hallowed traditions are just as allergic to touchifeeliness–consider the country’s fascination with turds. Generations of Britons have reveled in scatological humor; poop features quite prominently in some of their great literature, even. In Gulliver’s Travels, the hero closely observes insect droppings and the stinking evacuations of cows, while the horrible Yahoos pelt him with their dung. These passages are funny, but also deadly serious. Shit is made to stand for man’s essential viciousness, his brotherhood with base animals. And man’s brotherhood with base animals would seem to point to the futility of Diana-style attempts at emotional communion.
Self has long declared his admiration for Jonathan Swift, and in Great Apes he makes the homage explicit. Self’s hero, Simon Dykes, starts out as a successful but disillusioned painter living in contemporary London. Simon’s milieu is the much-hyped “Swinging London”–the city in the throes of a fashion-artistic-musical-culinary renaissance that has made the covers of Newsweek and Vanity Fair. Self, thankfully, is less of a booster. His London is more like a cesspool. Simon goes out to nightclubs, where he takes unholy quantities of drugs and sneaks off to have sex with his hot, vacant girlfriend; this is as sickening to him as “two skeletons copulating in a wardrobe.” As for the art world, Simon is so bored by its worthless wannabes that, while talking to them, he disassociates, turning one woman’s “anatomy inside out, sockwise,” imagining what life looks like from up inside her butt.
It’s a convincingly icky portrait, so we’re relieved when Self picks Simon up and sends him on a Swiftian journey. One morning, Simon wakes up to find that his girlfriend, a petite blonde, has turned into a beast that walks on its knuckles. Worse, Simon’s concern at this turn of events is interpreted as insanity. He’s hospitalized by chimp paramedics, and held for observation by a trendy, controversial chimp psychiatrist named Dr. Busner. Slowly, via grunting and sign language, his furry new caretakers explain that Simon is a chimp, that he has been a chimp all along, and that his humanity has been an illusion. Moreover, chimps are the civilized ones, while humans–slow, clumsy, embarrassingly hairless–are a primitive joke.
To help us picture these tony chimps, Self’s publisher has helpfully supplied cover art showing a low-browed, large-nostriled male creature. The face has an obviously simian cast–yet the creature sports a tweed coat and spectacles and parts his silver hair on the side; he bears a distinct resemblance to the late George Burns. It’s a mesmerizingly gross notion and, for a while, Self dazzles us with the ramifications. Self’s cleverest invention is probably the chimps’ language: They convey words to each other by signing and touching each other’s fur, and they add emotional inflection with grunts like euch-euch (irritable) and hooograa (friendly, inclusive). Another feature of chimp land is that monogamy has flown out the window. When a female goes into heat she thrusts out her “swelling,” and any male in sight, from the sweet old local minister to Dad, is invited to partake. As for the males, they all want to be the alpha, the top dog. Every encounter is either a challenge or a sniveling suck-up.
Self has the chimps spray shit, get crumbs of it stuck in their fur and, in the case of one odious academic, drink it–which more than meets the fecal humor quota for 1997. But, pretty soon, Self’s imagination begins to sputter. He gives us dexterous word painting, like this description of a decrepit hospital in which “the ghosts of patients long departed recline on skeletal neststeads and the broken spirits of long gone junior doctors toe-tap mournfully over the linoleum.” He gives us elaborate descriptions of chimp London, which looks much the same as human London, only a few sizes smaller. Self, it’s surprising to discover, is a painstaking realist. And much of what he describes is dully familiar: There is a chimp Noam Chomsky and a chimp Liam Gallagher, and upper-class chimps read TheNew Yorker.
Critics often praise Self’s cerebral rigor, his sharp satiric grip on our foibles–and Great Apes does occasionally gesture in this direction. He inverts intellectual history, tracing 18th-century European chimps’ fascination with savage humans–Swift’s Yahoos being a prime example–and the delusional arrogance with which “Western Civilization … had projected itself towards divinity on the up-escalator of the Chain of Being.” He also pokes fun at evolutionary biologists, who so confidently ascribe all our behavior to genetic programming. But these ideas aren’t developed; they remain on the level of rhetoric. As for insight into any character other than Simon’s, here are a few of Self’s pearls, which he delivers with the I-don’t-really-mean-it, yes-I-do exhibitionism of a Howard Stern. There are Jewish chimps with big “nasal bridges.” The females in the novel tend to be dumb and nymphomaniac, and one is an especially miserable, laughable fool. There are also black-furred monkeys, or “bonobos”–huge creatures who excel at sports and love to have sex and to dance.
Swift was just as merciless, of course. So why is he timeless, while Self’s sendups of PC already seem dated, as if he’d jotted them down in a fit of childish pique in 1991? I wonder if it’s that Swift, for all his pessimism, was deeply engaged in the events of his day. He was a Whig-turned-fervent-Tory, an activist cleric, a staunch defender of the Anglican Church. Much of the power of his bilious attacks comes from a righteous Christian sense of sin. Self strains to carry on the tradition, but the world has changed since 1726. He preserves Swift’s rage without his certainty. His attacks seem less illuminating than pointless; they’re out of it, and unnecessarily cruel. A little like the Royal Family, it occurred to me the other day. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Flower Revolution extends to English literature.