You may remember many months ago I was given a copy of Great Apes by Will Self for my birthday. Given the ever present stack of books by my bed waiting to be read, it took a while but eventually I managed to crack the spine of Great Apes.
Great Apes tells the story of Simon Dykes, a celebrated artist leading a dissolute and shallow life in London. Simon awakes one morning, after a fairly typical drug and alcohol fueled night on the town, to find that his girlfriend has turned into a chimpanzee and indeed so has the rest of humanity. Simon is understandably horrified. His unwavering belief that he is human leads his girlfriend to have him committed to a mental hospital where he is kept in isolation and treated by eminent psychologist Dr. Zack Busner (who seems to be based on Oliver Sacks) and Dr. Jane Bowen.
Busner has been the alpha male in his group for fifteen years, and as such enjoys the privileges this affords him, such as being head of the household and mating with the group’s females first. There are subordinate males within his group who want to make a play for the alpha position and with Machiavellian plans afoot, they use Dr. Busner’s treatment of Simon as the opportunity they have been looking for.
Great Apes owes a debt to Planet of the Apes and to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and of course to Jonathan Swift, a satirist who Self is often compared to. In this book Self is hammering home a satiric point; humans actually have more in common with chimps than we care to admit and when it comes to some things in life, sex for example, chimps are far less hypocritical than humans.
Sex. Of course it wouldn’t be a Will Self novel if it didn’t deal with sex and chimps are the perfect vehicle for his fascination. So we are treated to endless descriptions of sex; incestuous sex, homosexual sex, sex between strangers, sex outdoors, sex in public places, sex on the stairway of a nightclub. On and on it goes until at one point I felt like screaming “I GET IT”!
There are enjoyable moments in the book and I always admire Self’s use of language and extensive vocabulary (he’s one of few writers to send me hunting for a dictionary). He can also be extremely funny and Great Apes has many moments of great humour. However the plot seems tacked on as an afterthought and I found this enormously frustrating. If he had managed to combine a brilliant plot with this clever satiric device I’m sure Great Apes would have been award winning.
There are many writers who, having thought of this bizarre role reversal, would endeavour to create a short story from it; only Self has the neck to sustain this riff over 500 pages. Some of the time it works and the reader can’t help but admire the world he has created, but most of the time it feels like Self would have been better off creating a novella rather than dragging out a slender idea to create this bloated novel.