Archimedes thought that he could move the world if only he could get outside of it, and the same idea inspires writers in the transcendental genre of fiction. Find some place sufficiently far out and put your fulcrum there. The leverage you achieve will lend authority to your voice. Both these books hope that higher primates will supply the required pivot. The Woman and the Ape looks up to them for moral edification; Great Apes looks down on them for comic relief. Each is, in its own way, amply unsuccessful.
Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow made a stir a couple of years ago. Its plot was muddled, but it did have an ingratiating heroine and lots of ethnic local colour; and things happened too fast for you to think about them much. It was a good enough book for a read in the bathtub, or to make into a movie. The Woman and the Ape, however, is simply a disaster.
Imagine the situation in Lady Chatterley’s Lover: the husband frigid, the wife discontented, the boyfriend an outsider, but sensitive and virile. With, however, this difference: the Mellors character is an ape. Not like an ape, mind you; an ape sans phrase. Surely, you will say, this can only be the stuff of parody, and pretty heavy-handed parody. Lots of it reads indeed like an attempt at a Lawrence pastiche. Language lesson: ‘She nodded in the direction of its [the ape’s] penis. “Cock,” she said. The ape stretched out an arm ... and eased it under her dress. “Pussy,” she said hoarsely, enlightening him.’ But Høeg apparently intends that we should take it all with full moral earnestness. Erasmus (that’s the ape) is very much a higher primate; he is an intellectual chap, and thinks of things that would astonish you. ‘You are not what went before. You are, rather, what comes afterwards,’ one of the novel’s (wicked) scientists tells Erasmus. The plot turns largely on the wicked scientists’ attempt to take off the top of Erasmus’s skull so they can see what he has underneath it. Understandably, Erasmus and his girlfriend are disinclined to let them do that. Høeg’s grasp of how science works is a little unnuanced. ‘ “What were they looking for?” Madelene asked ... “Ah yes, what are we looking for,” he said. “Can anyone answer that?” ’ Try putting that in your next grant proposal and see how far it gets you.
Erasmus’s mission is redemptive; he is hell-bent on our moral improvement. Towards the end of the novel, he gives a lecture to a human audience. (It’s the convention, in this kind of fiction, that the animals talk. And talk. And talk.) ‘ “When we are gone,” he said, “you will forget us. Until we come again. Till then there is only one thing I would ask you to remember. And that is how hard it is to tell, in each one of us, where the part that you call human ends and the part you call animal begins.” ’ How true, how very true.
Madelene (the Lady Chatterley character) also has a moral lesson to impart. ‘ “It’s not only blue sky. There’s an angel there, too.” “What is an angel?” asked the ape. Madelene shook her head. “That’s something I’ve never been quite clear about,” she said. “But for all we know it’s one-third god, one-third animal, and one-third human.” ’ We are told of Madelene’s husband (who is, of course, one of the wicked scientists) that at ‘no point in the 529 days of their marriage nor – presumably – at any time prior to it, nor – in all likelihood – at any time thereafter had it occurred to or would it occur to Adam Burden [Adam’s burden, get it?] that there might be anything funny about him.’ Høeg, in this passage, seems to be skating on very thin ice.
Well, it all comes out all right. The scientists don’t get to take Erasmus’s skull off; Madelene stops drinking and conceives (God only knows what); and the lady and the ape sail off to ‘the forests. Around the Baltic. The Swedish and Finnish forests.’ Under a blue sky. With the aforementioned angel in it. Really.
By contrast, Great Apes isn’t a disaster, exactly. Will Self does know when he’s being funny; and, at a minimum, he’s reliably obscene. But his book doesn’t work either, and by the time one’s halfway through, the jokes are falling pretty flat.
Simon Dykes, successful painter, distinctly a creative type, awakes after a very long night of sex, alcohol and more kinds of drugs than most people know the names of. His morning starts badly: his girlfriend has turned into a chimpanzee. So, too, it transpires, has everybody else. So, too, has Dykes, though, not surprisingly, it’s a transformation that it takes him a while fully to acknowledge. Or rather, they have not precisely turned into chimpanzees, since only Dykes among all the simians has memories of a previous humanity. The ontological situation never becomes completely clear, but apparently Dykes is trapped in a parallel world; one in which chimps have become the evolutionarily dominant primate form. The few humans left in the wild are dying off under the pressure of encroaching chimp civilisation. Only the anthropologists care because, though human infants are sort of cute, adults of the species are markedly unprepossessing. Most chimps doubt that they are intelligent, or even sentient. Feral humans may have a language, but if they do it’s rudimentary. In the whole course of the novel, none of them says anything except ‘fuck off.’ That, however, is something that they say very often. It’s not always certain that Self knows when he isn’t being funny.
There are, in principle, two kinds of chimp jokes: the ones about how chimpanzees are much like us, and the ones about how chimpanzees aren’t much like us. Self’s chimps have a social hierarchy and a ritual of deference according to which one offers one’s respects by presenting one’s posterior. ‘ “I am honoured, madam, to make your acquaintance. The entire scientific community is in awe of your ischial pleat ... and I, too, reverence your dangly bits. I would accord it an honour if you would kiss my arse” ... she bestowed the required kiss, then requested an arse lick from Busner in turn.’ Self finds this sort of thing endlessly hilarious; and he is the kind of humorist who thinks that you can’t tell a good joke too often. I guess he tells the kiss-my-arse joke maybe 800 times. Self also can’t get over it that chimps mate publicly and promiscuously, and only when the female is in oesterus. That, he thinks, is more laughs than a barrel of monkeys.
In all other respects, however, Self’s chimps are much like the people that they caricature; in fact, too much like and therein lies the novel’s structural problem. Simon awakes to a world of apes, but each of them is readily identified with its human counterpart, whose name it bears, and whose behaviours, anxieties and attributes it inherits. (Mutatis mutandis, of course; you will have no end of fun identifying the topical references.) So, there is a chimp called Jane Godall, who studies feral humans. Likewise, Self’s chimps watch television shows with names like Sub-Adult Dominant Chef and they dress in the manner of the corresponding humans except that the apes don’t wear bottoms. (Bottoms again.) Inevitably, the chimp who is the putative author of Great Apes signs his Preface ‘W.W.S.’.
Accordingly, the effect is not of animals but of people all dressed up in chimp suits with nowhere much to go. By the end of the book, their fur has more or less ceased to matter to what the characters do and suffer. Maybe that’s Self’s point of course; but just what point does it amount to? Why have your people turn into chimpanzees if you are then going to have your chimpanzees turn into people? Self himself doesn’t seem to know. ‘ “Given your preoccupation before your breakdown with the very essence of corporeality and its relation to our basic sense of chimpunity, it crossed my mind ... that your conviction that you were human ... was more in the manner of a satirical trope.” Simon mused for some time before countersigning, then simply flicked, “It’s an image.” ’ There’s no particular resolution of the central situation. It never is made clear how, or why, or even whether, Simon got to be a chimp; or what has become of all the humans that used to be around. The novel eventually comes to a halt out of what feels like sheer authorial fatigue.
The technical problem for fictions that moralise animals is: too much Otherness, and the allegory starts to seem irrelevant; too little Otherness and it starts to seem transparent. Great masters of the form manage to resolve this tension. Melville, for example, in one direction; Orwell, for example, in the other. But it’s very tricky and neither Høueg nor Self has come close.