Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Great Apes

Will Self Great Apes (1997)

Swiftian is definitely the term and in block capitals with hundreds and thousands sprinkled all around for emphasis. Great Apes describes the psychosis and social trauma of wine-guzzling media socialites through the medium of chimpanzees, specifically artist Simon Dykes who wakes to find himself trapped in a knuckle-walking world he never made, as the Marvelism would have it. It probably doesn't take a genius to point out that human interaction is mostly animal politics overlaid with a behavioural veneer which only appears civilised because we've all agreed to define it as such; but it does take a serious talent to stretch the point to such vividly ludicrous extremes as are found here. Even as our hero despairs at a world in which his former girlfriend is casually mated by four or five suitors during her daily commute, where humans are seen only in zoos, the wilds of Africa, or as authors of amusing chaos in PG Tips commercials, or as those guys dressed in their ludicrous prosthetics in the Planet of the Humans movies; there's very little of this inverted world which isn't painfully familiar.

As he lay in nest, in Hampstead, in a world dominated by the physical, the bodily, Simon stared at the dark wall, at a poster tacked there that showed a chimpanzee with a pronounced eyebrow ridge screaming into a microphone. Underneath the muzzle was the legend 'Liam Gallagher, Oasis'. Some oasis, Simon mused, more like a mirage. A mirage that should dissolve.

I've never entirely warmed to chimps, or understood their appeal - not that I necessarily have any pronounced animosity towards them, but it's probably that element of something human which isn't quite human and seems therefore all the more unpleasant in our eyes. This uneasy kinship is addressed frequently in Great Apes in so much as it's probably why the novel works so well, but conversely for myself it also foments an unsavoury aftertaste which fosters appreciation rather than full-on pleasure in the sense of Self's earlier and brilliant My Idea of Fun - although pleasure is almost certainly the wrong word.

I spent a minute there striving for some term which might do justice to Great Apes, something to encapsulate the repulsive, compelling, hilarious, scathing, and deathly depressing all roughly within the same morpheme; then realised Swiftian really does cover it all - right under my nose all along, much like the discomforting yet familiar world of Great Apes.

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