tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE's Reviews > Great Apes

Great Apes by Will Self
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really liked it
bookshelves: literature
Recommended for: readers of Stewart Home's bks

I 1st read mention of Will Self in a text by Stewart Home. Home insulted Self as being something along the lines of a rich Oxford junkie who doesn't deserve his reputation as an underground writer. Since I'd never heard of Self before, he had no reputation w/ me at all. Knowing Stewart's tendency to publically degrade anyone who he perceives as competition, I didn't take the negativity as representative of any substantial critical take. After all, it seems that Home's usual intention is to discourage conformists & sycophants from even experiencing the work of the people he puts down by making experiencing such work 'uncool'. Thusly, idiots can automatically hate Self's writing on the basis of Home's word & never discover for themselves whether Self's writing might be more interesting than Home's.

W/ that in mind, when I finally saw this bk by Self I picked it up. Having just finished reading it, I have to wonder whether Self is a pseudonym of Home. However, after doing extremely cursory pseudo-research on the net, this appears to be not the case. The writing style is similarly somewhat simple-minded but I'd give Self credit for being a little more accomplished. Home's use of the same joking repetitive description of sex over & over in his 1st novel "Pure Mania" is somewhat akin to Self's running joke referring to his character Zack Busner's self-inflated self-definitions: "the maverick anti-psychiatrist - as he liked to style himself" eg. I can certainly see why the 2 writers wd be professional rivals.

ANYWAY, I started reading this & at 1st took it to be a sign that the once-great Grove Press had deteriorated from its days as the publisher of William S. Burroughs & Jean Genet. Despite a promising alternate reality premise, I quickly got bored w/ what strikes me as a malaise of post-censorship writing: too much sex & drugs for sensationalism's sake & as a substitute for genuine incisive examination.

HOWEVER, that eventually changed & I became engrossed. "Great Apes" begins w/ an "Author's Note" in wch the author presents himself as a chimpanzee perversely writing about humans as if they'd become the dominant species instead of chimps. Then the main character, Simon Dykes, a British painter, is introduced. We follow Simon's night & sex & art life as a human for awhile until he has a breakdown & finds himself in a world in wch chimps ARE the dominant species & in wch he's one too.

From then on, the world is described w/ many references to modern-day human conditions but w/ chimps substituted for humans. Simon ends up in the doctoral care of Zack Busner & the reader follows the steps he goes thru to regain his "chimpunity". I assume Self did some research into chimpanzee studies b/c it's all fairly convincingly presented. "Arse-Lickers" definitely takes on a highly socially defined meaning here.

In the process, Self manages to give the reader a refreshing take on humanity - esp in relation to hierarchical posturings of the art & scientific worlds. Take this paragraph:

"'Of course, Zackiekins "chup-chupp", I am honored that you acknowledge my ascent up the hierarchy. Now, as I was signing, the reputations of these artists - if that's what they are - are also so arguable, that they require continual interpretation and "gru-nnn" adjustment by a large party of critics "grnn". The critics have their own hierarchy, and the hierarchy that exists between them and the artists' party is also highly fluid - subject to continual flux. That's why "chup-chupp" they're all dressed up, and displaying and presenting and grooming and mating, for all the buggers are worth "h'hee-hee-hee"!'"

In the above excerpt the main text is being signed by Simon & the things like "chup-chupp" are being vocalized - in a sortof reversal of human communication in wch the hands are used gesturally & the voice as the main communicator - something I assume to be accurate in chimps.

All in all, I ended up liking this alot. I've been preoccupied for many a yr w/ humans as animals. As a child, I was raised w/ the common notion that humans are distinguished from animals by various cognitive abilities that supposedly make us superior. As a teenager that seemed like a crock of shit & I've always stated that we ARE animals. Not such a radical idea, of course. I never had a problem w/ being an animal. Oddly, though, these days I DO have a problem w/ being one. Not b/c being an animal is something I consider to be 'bad' but b/c I'm a bit sick of the conflicts between instinctual behavior & intellectual behavior.

Sex between humans is a constant struggle between instincts & thoughts. I use the term BOD (Biological OverDrive) to refer to what propels us into sexual contact. The idea's obvious: we're driven to mate to further our DNA's quest for new forms. Men try to impregnate, women try to be impregnated. Perhaps gays & lesbians try to create a Third Mind. At any rate, the body cooperates w/ this process by making sexual contact a form of pleasure to be lusted for w/ great frequency. Such an acknowledgement of biological drives is almost taboo amongst political activists who prefer to emphasize social hierarchies entirely.

But back to chimps & humans. Chimpanzees have Alpha Males - males who dominate &, therefore, fuck the most females. These males use violence, displays, to maintain this position. This has preoccupied me for a long time. Humans parallel chimps in this & many respects. Alpha Male Humans rule for a while & are eventually overthrown when they get too weak to effectively use violence against the up & coming. This is instinctual. But humans have complex intellectual & social codes that temper this. The male instinctual drive may push toward impregnating as many females as possible, but the intellectual deterrents might include a lack of desire for producing children, & a desire for using sex purely for pleasure. Social deterrents might be that producing children usually carries w/ it the responsibility of taking care of them - a responsibility that the fe/male might abhor.

I often say that being in bands is just the human form of mating displaying - trying to attract a mate or mates. There's not often a strong musical impetus behind it - even if lip service is pd to music or other purposes the mating display seems like the strong, & usually underacknowledged, undercurrent. Males, esp, have bands when the members are in their 20s & then gradually fade out of the music biz after the attraction factor has served its purpose somewhat.

"Great Apes" is a good exploration of parallels between chimp & human behavior. Throughout it, there are carefully implanted references to such purposes - such as when the use of humans as cute cuddly animals in chimp society representations are alluded to, eg.
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Reading Progress

April 24, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
May 10, 2008 – Shelved as: literature
May 10, 2008 – Finished Reading

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