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Monday, June 05, 2006

Books 3, Matilda 0

My book-choosing foo has been weak lately, and the capitalist in me is tempted to connect this to my austerity program.

A few weeks ago I wrote about my disappointment with Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito. It's always a bigger let down when a favorite author, well, lets you down. The one up side to that was it made Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans look like less of a let down. Nonetheless, a girl starts to get paranoid when two safe bets in a row fail to deliver.

So after finishing Villa Incognito, I grabbed a book that's been on my shelf for a long time---Will Self's Great Apes. I admit that back when I bought it I fell victim mostly to the cover, but the concept also sounded like it could be interesting. It can be interesting, of course, but the sad truth is that Self's novel is less interesting than anything in the Planet of the Apes oeuvre. (And I'm not dissin' the oeuvre, I assure you.)

The first problem was that Self seems to fancy himself a Camus or a Kafka, when he's really a Leonard Cohen in authorial terms. (Please, save the impassioned defenses of Cohen as a musician---I like Cohen as a musician [if not as a singer {OUCH}], but before you go defending him as a cultural god, I refer you to Beautiful Losers [specifically, please seek out the "erotic" scene in which two of the main characters have "telephone sex," which involves a woman stuffing her own nipples in her ears], quite possibly the worst novel written in English, inclusive of Clancy, Follett, that DaVinci asshole, and whoever wrote the Bridges of Madison County.)

The first 60 or so pages are a sort of drug-fevered dream of the main character, Simon Dykes. During this, he's human and part of a cynical, debauched group of artists and hangers-on. Like Cohen, Self seems intent on grossing the reader out. He devotes about a paragraph per page to this guy's intestinal problems, which have left him with a shit-stained gusset on his pants (I don't think "gusset" is on my friend J's list of disgusting words, but it ought to be in my opinion). He thinks an awful lot about that shit-stained gusset, which I guess is supposed to be deep and connected to his upcoming show, which consists of canvases (he's an artist) that ruminate on the corporeality of humanity or something like that. It's mostly just tedious.

Simon and his girlfriend get horny on bad cocaine and head back to her place. There they have the hawt sex, during which he is obsessed with her childlike body. He sets her to "writhe around, because I am a sex god and being in my presence is enough to drive you wild with desire" mode and has a long, jumbled think about his children (whose asses he keeps conflating with that of his lover [creep. y.]) and his failed marriage. When he can be bothered to turn his attention back to the festivities at hand, he naturally gives her the orgasm of her life and they fall asleep. He has a complicated nightmare filled with tortuous prose (and I know from tortuous prose, as you know), and wakes up a chimpanzee who thinks he's a human.

From here on out, the book (which goes on for more than 300 pages more) has all the subtlety, nuance, and draw of a 2-year-old playing "You know what? CHICKEN BUTT!" Self is enamored of the linguistic substitutions that he's come up with (chimpunity, signlence, some-threes, bonoboism, etc., etc., et bloody cetera), which grow tiresome quite early on. But while those little tricks are just not as clever as he thinks they are, they're nothing to the puerile social substitutions and reversals that I imagine he imagines will be shocking to his audience.

Self introduces Zack Busner, the psychiatrist on the case, in a flurry of sex and violence. He slaps the younger males in his household around, then talks to them in sickeningly sweet baby talk to reassure them. The females, he gives a good, quick mounting, of course (nothing is sexier to a female chimpanzee that having things overwith almost immediately). And everyone is grooming one another constantly, because everyone has SEMEN IN THEIR FUR.

See? Chimpanzees SLAP THEIR CHILDREN AROUND and HAVE SEX WITH THEIR DAUGHTERS! Isn't that SHOCKING? Even if it had been shocking initially, Self is so fucking repetitive in both language and concept that it becomes a kind of apathetic, prose-based Ludovico technique. And that applies to everything, from the adjectives and phrases he uses to describe Busner (maverick, former tv personality, "as he liked to style himself") to the way individuals interact with one another when they first meet (equals present to one another and engage in mutual, literal ass-kissing, etc.) to what is possibly his favorite device, which is fathers fucking daughters.

Another tedious device is the fact that he loves to remake well-known figures as chimpanzees. So Jane Goodall works with the wild humans of the Gombe stream, etc.; Dian Fossey is a cranky, crazy old zoologist studying gorillas (and probably fucking them!). However, no one really bothers to check any of his factual information, so his assertions of phylogenetic relationships are wrong; his invocation of Great Rift Valley population theory had been out of date for a decade by the time the book was published; he talks about the linguistic work of "Sue Savage-Rimbaud" (Rumbaugh, actually); and other dumb easily checked shit. In the Amazon reviews, someone points out that Busner himself is very much a ripoff of Oliver Sacks in some ways, and there are others who I'm probably supposed to recognize but don't.

In the last 60 pages or so of the book, when Self has abandoned each and every plot point raised up until then (the fact that Busner's participation in an unethical drug trial may have caused the psychotic break in the first place; the fact that Simon had a lover who was supposed to be very important [and her own problems related to the fact that her father didn't fuck her enough]; his art and its relationship to anything; a plot against the psychiatrist by three other characters; and a host of other things), he takes a completely bizarre turn and has his own psychotic break from the reality of his own book. He's decided that all his own ideas for plot are uninteresting (I concur) and suddenly everyone is off to Africa with a documentary crew to find a former zoo human whom Simon's family had "adopted."

At some point, the idea that this human is his third child is introduced---and when I say introduced, I mean that it's stated as fact a couple hundred pages after we've been given a pretty detailed account of Simon's delusion about his former life. Busner, for no particular reason (and bear in mind that he has every reason to believe that Simon has actually been physically brain damaged by the drug) decides that finding this human and forcing Simon to face the lack of relationship to him will be what unravels his delusion.

So even though Jane Goodall and her work at Gombe have been invoked many, many times by this point, suddenly, he introduces a made-up character (a fat, horrible, German, dykeish, mumu-wearing chimp) who is like Goodall's evil doppelganger working at Gombe, and that's who they go to see. Actually, many aspects of the description sound suspiciously like one journalist-wannabe's hate piece on Birute Galdikas (who, by the way, works in Borneo, not Sumatra, asshole). While they're trundling through Africa, worrying about being attacked by humans, Self rolls the Animal House credits, telling us what happened to all the other characters in the middle of what is supposed to be the climax of the novel.

In retrospect, I don't know why I didn't just put this down after the first 10 pages (although I only do that on extremely rare occasions). Everything about this book is pathetic. It's a sorry excuse for satire, the language is hackneyed and repetitive to the point of making me wonder if Self is actually obsessive-compulsive, there is nothing like structure to it. I have the sense that anyone who might have been editing this did the wise thing and DID give up after 10 pages. I can't blame them for filling the angry minute with 60 seconds' worth of distance run.

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