Great Apesby Will Self
“A high-powered satirical weapon . . . with Great Apes, his most satisfying book so far, Will Self establishes himself as an alpha male in the British literary hierarchy.” –The New York Times Book Review
Some people lost their sense of proportion, others their sense of scale, but Simon Dykes, a middle-aged, successful London painter, has lost his sense of perspective in a most disturbing fashion. After a night of routine, pedestrian debauchery, traipsing from toilet to toilet, and imbibing a host of narcotics on the way, Simon wakes up cuddled in his girlfriend’s loving arms. Much to his dismay, however, his girlfriend has turned into a chimpanzee. To add insult to injury, the psychiatric crash team sent to deal with him as he flips his lid is also comprised of chimps. Indeed, the entire city is overrun by clever primates, who, when they are not jostling for position, grooming themselves, or mating some of the females, can be found driving Volvos, hanging out on street corners, and running the world.
Nonetheless convinced that he is still a human, Simon is confined to the emergency psychiatric ward of Charing Cross Hospital, where he becomes the patient of Dr. Zack Busner, clinical psychologist, medical doctor, anti-psychiatrist, and former television personality–an expert at the height of his reign as alpha male. As Busner attempts to convince him that “everyone who is fully sentient in this world are chimpanzees,” Simon struggles with the horrifying delusion that he is really a human trapped in a chimp’s body.
Written with the same brilliant satiric wit that has distinguised Self’s earlier fiction, Great Apes is a hilarious, often disturbing, and absolutely original take on man’s place in the evolutionary chain. In a strange and twisted tale that recalls Jonathan Swift and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Will Self’s comic genius is impossible to ignore.
‘swiftian tartness, Kafkaesque transformation and full tilt Monty Python–style surrealism propel [Great Apes], a hilarious, unusually discomfiting exploration of what it means to be human.” –The Seattle Times
“A high-powered satirical weapon . . . with Great Apes, his most satisfying book so far, Will Self establishes himself as an alpha male in the British literary hierarchy.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A fur-flying satire of Swiftian proportions.” –Vanity Fair
“What makes [Great Apes] work is an inventive prose of vigorous verbs, high-tech terms, odd juxtapositions and a manic sensibility eager to wallow where others fear to tread.” –Newsday
“Great Apes, the exultantly hallucinogenic new novel by Will Self, a satirist of some moral seriousness, imagines a world subject to a complete species reversal. Self’s fable eventually segues from hyperinventive wit into something more thoughtful, and achieves the rare feat of temporarily altering the reader’s perspective.
” –The Guardian
“A world of apes affords many opportunities for Will Self’s kind of fun, realized with the vigour of the cartoonist and delivered with the verve of the standup comedian.” –The Times Literary Supplement (London)
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Editor’s Choice “Best Books of the Year” –Booklist
One of the Year’s Best Novels–Time Out
Simon Dykes, the artist, stood, rented glass in hand, and watched as a rowing eight emerged from the brown brick wall of one building, slid across a band of gray-green water, and then eased into the grey concrete of another building. Some people lose their sense of proportion, thought Simon, but what would it be like to lose your sense of perspective?
“Disastrous for a painter –”
“I’m sorry,” Simon blurted, imagining for a second that he had spoken aloud.
“They’re disastrous for a painter,” reiterated George Levinson, who had come up by Simon’s elbow and now stood beside him, looking out of the plate-glass window that faced on to the river.
“By that I take it you mean they’re disastrous for the painter.” Simon half turned towards George’s ruminant profile and swept an arm to encompass the white space of the gallery, the big oblong canvases, and the posing private openeers, who stood about in loose groups, arms cocked, as if they were some tableau vivant intended to exhibit human social interactions.
” George slurped some Chilean wine out of his rented glass. “Sold the lot. Sold the lot, every one shot with a little red dot. No, I mean the technique could be disastrous for a painter such as yourself, this idea of silk screen laid over photogravure. I mean, I know it isn’t that — um — remarkable in and of itself, but you have to admit that the finished result does have something … something of the heft –”
“Of oils? Of painting in oils. Fuck off, George. I’ll fire you if you say another word.” And painter turned away from dealer to resume staring out through the ravine of buildings, across at the melange of modernist apartment blocks and Victorian mansion blocks on the Battersea side of the river.
The outer eddies from the opening reached the two men, a skirl of chamber music nouveau, a waft of Marlboro smoke, a couple of youngsters, who leant against a nearby pillar, the girl’s sateen-hosed thigh gently rubbing her companion’s corduroy crotch, while sheep-like they cropped on one another’s faces. Islanded, Simon and George stood together with the quiet assurance of men who have stood thus many times before, the mood that held them unforced.
Another rowing eight nosed out from the brown brick building, hovered on its glaucous cushion in the masonry frame, the cox at the back clearly visible — baseball hat loudhailer — and then slid into the grey concrete like a vast hypodermic powered by eight hearty junior doctors. “No,” said Simon. “No, I was thinking when you came up … thinking, looking at this” — he poked a finger at the square of Thames, the oblongs of building, the garnishes of green to the side — “what a terrible thing it would be for a painter to lose his sense of perspective.”
“I thought that was the whole point of a great swathe of abstract art this century, the attempt to view without preconceptions, cubism, fauvism, vorti –”
“– That’s loss of perspective as an intellectual assumption. I’m talking about real loss of perspective, a sort of perspective blindness where all depth of field is eradicated, where all that can be grasped is form and colour mutating within a single plane.”
“You mean like some sort of neurological disorder? What do they call it, agnopho –”
“– Agnosia, yeah, I suppose … I’m not quite sure what I mean, but I’m not talking about a Cezanne-inspired viewing-of-the-world-anew, but a diminution. It’s perspective that provides the necessary third continuum for vision and maybe consciousness as well. Without it an individual might no longer be able to apprehend time, might … might have to relearn time in some way, or be left in a sliver of reality, imprisoned like a microbe in a microscope slide.”
“It’s a thought,” Levinson replied after some seconds had elapsed, including himself out of it.
“Simon Dykes?” A woman had approached during this speech and stood, hovering between diffidence and assertiveness, hand forward, body leant back and away, as if the latter were the appendage.
“I’m sorry to interrupt –”
“It’s OK, I was just –” and George Levinson was gone, heading back across the lack-of-industry white floor-covering, an adipose wader of a man, dipping his bill into knots of people as he went, dropping one name here and picking up another over there, amply justifying a recent glossy magazine article which had described him as `the most proficient room-worker in the London art world’.
“That’s George Levinson, isn’t it?” the woman said. She was round-faced with wavelets of black hair tossed about on the top of her head. Down below her clothing encased rather than draped her small, gibbous body.
“Yes, that’s right.” Simon didn’t want to sound as off-putting as he knew he did, but the opening fatigue was upon him and he didn’t want to be there.
“Does he still handle you?”
“Oh no, no no, not any more, not since we were at prep school together in fact, then he would often handle me in the locker room after games. Nowadays he just sells my paintings for me.”
“Ha-ha!” The woman’s laugh wasn’t forced — it wasn’t a laugh at all, more an allusion to the possibility of humour. “I know that, of course –”
“Then why did you ask?”
“Look.” The woman’s face puckered, and Simon could see in that instant that petulant resentment was her natural cast of mind, all the rest a tremendous effort of will. “If you’re going to be rude –”
“No, I’m sorry, really …” He raised a hand, fingers outstretched, and then tamped down the thickening atmosphere between them, patted it into the shape of niceness, patted it and even patted her wrist a little. “I didn’t mean to sound so sharp, I’m tired and …” He had felt her wrist, the band of her watch, steel, the edge of her wrist bone sharp as his tone, bird bones, sparrow bones, splintered bones.
His eyes slid to the window even as he patted, and there in the notch of river swirled a thrown handful of birds — swallows presumably — fusing into flock then fissioning back into individuals, like thoughts in a disordered mind. Simon thought of Coleridge, and then drugs. Funny that, like a synaesthesia of concepts, some people `hear’ the doorbell as green, I think Coleridge as drugs, or birds as Coleridge or birds as drugs … And Simon thought then of Sarah, her pubic hair specifically, and only then of the woman walking into his mind, under his very eyes, in through his very eyes — no perspective, you dig? — and looking over its contents to see if there was anything to use. “I don’t mean to be so rude. I’m tired, ope –”
“You must be, what with your new show opening soon. Are you good on deadlines?”
“No, not really. I tend to be painting the day before an opening, and then stretching and framing most of the ni –” He faltered. “I’m going to be rude again. Before I say anything more I ought to know who I’m talking to.”
“Vanessa Agridge, Contemporanea,” She flipped her bird-like claw under his hand and didn’t so much shake it as scratch the palm. “I came to this, but I don’t think there’s much I can write about her, so it’s a bit of a result for me … seeing you here…. out and about — so to speak — in the week before the new show …” Like a faltering engine, she died. The pause hunched between them in unequal space.
“Her?” queried Simon after a decent while.
“Manuella Sanchez,” Vanessa Agridge replied, tapping him on the arm with a rolled-up copy of the catalogue in a way she imagined to be flirtatious. Simon looked at her with his new perspectiveless vision: blob-shaped muzzle, slashed red, topped with blackish fur, blackish fur below. It swelled some, slash gaped to show canines, and she continued. “She’s meant to be so outre’ — anyway, that’s what her people said — but she isn’t. Just dull. Nothing to say for herself.”
“But the work, isn’t that what you’re here to write about, her work?”
“Hngfh’” she snorted, “no, no, Contemporanea is more of a featuresey thing, artists’ lives, lifestyles and so forth. My editor calls it `Vasari for the venal’.”
“Isn’t it.” She lifted her rented glass to her lips, sipped, and viewed him over the rim. “So, your show, figurative work? Abstracts? A return to your conceptual stuff like World of Bears? What can we expect?”
Simon put on his perspective again and looked afresh at Vanessa Agridge. Her thickly applied pancake was almost friable when zoomed in on; her face not blobby, beaky in fact, her eyes rather on the raw, ducty side. Simon made weird assessments of volume, mass, weight, alcohol-by-volume, then flared his nostrils and caught primitive whiffs of her, then with remote sensors traced the webbing beneath the pouching of her clothes, sent one psychic probe into her anus, the other into her left nostril. He turned her anatomy inside out, sockwise, and in the process quite forgot who the fuck she was, what the fuck she had said up until now, and so told her.
“Certainly not abstract. I think non-representational painting has finally gone the way Levi-Strauss predicted, `a school of academic painting in which the artist strives to represent the manner in which he would execute his paintings if he were by any chance to paint some.’”
“That’s very good,” said Vanessa Agridge, “very … witty. Could I use it, do you think — credited, of course.”
“Credited to Levi-Strauss, it’s his observation, as I said.”
“Of course, of course …” a Dictaphone had appeared in her, bird-like, prestidigitated, on. Simon hadn’t noticed. “So, they’re portraits then, still lifes –”
“Nudes.” He remembered smoking a stolen cigarillo in a marsh, his mother’s world-girdle, his father’s penis, stubby, circumcised —
“Are they sort of Bacon-y, or maybe” — she tittered — “Freud-y. You know, peeling away the bloom from a woman’s body, externalising her anatomy, sort of –”
“They’re love paintings.” Piss-in-pants, piss-on-floor. That very bilious bead. Piss lives with lino. Or maybe Piss Lives With Lino. Titlewise that is “Sigh”.
“They’re what?” Vanessa Agridge had the Dictaphone up by her pig-like — crushed, flat, bristly — the way some other jerks held cellular phones.
“Love paintings. They’re paintings that in a quite straightforward, almost narrative way describe my love for the human body. My thirty-nine-year affair with the human body.”
In the minutes they had been at contraflow with one another the opening had begun to close. The openeers swam towards the doors of the gallery, sluiced here and there into little whirlpools of further sociability. George Levinson floated by them and slowly revolved to face Simon. “Are you coming on, Simon?”
“Excuse me — where?”
“To Grindley’s first, then maybe the Sealink later.”
“I may see you at the Sealink, I have to see what Sarah’s doing first.”
Levinson disappeared downstream, flirting with a youth he’d picked up, a boy like a puma, with slim hips, violet eyes and a black coat. And, in the wake of seeing-George-and-him-go, bobbed the recognition of what had preceded it. Simon straightened up, pulled himself into the present. In a life where every third person he met assumed an expression that showed they recognised him, was it any wonder that he constantly found himself talking to strangers as if they were friends?
All of this, and then Simon said to Vanessa Agridge, who had a Dictaphone — as he now saw — in threatening evidence, “You must excuse me –”
“I just did.” She was catching his style — it happened.
“No, I mean now. I must go. I have to work.”
“To meet Sarah?”
“She’s my girlfriend –”
“Girlfriend. Look, I’m going.” And he started off, out of the trap.
“One thing …” she called. He turned, she was a shadow now, exiguous, wavering against the summer evening.
“This Levi-Strauss fellow.”
“You haven’t got a number for him, have you? It’s just that I thought I’d run that quote by him — if I do the piece, that is.”
There was a small rank of pay phones by the main doors of the gallery. Simon levered his phonecard out of his cardholder and fed it into the slot. He punched Sarah’s number at the artists’ agency where she worked and waited in a virtual aviary with the chirrupings and tweetings of connection. Then her lips grazed his cheekbone, her voice breathed into his ear: `I’m not available to take your call right now, so …’ Not her voice. As close to her voice as the voice of Hal in 2001 was to a human voice. Not her sparky tone either, but horrifically measured, every word a spondee.
“Are you there?” he queried after the peep, knowing that she would be.
“Vetting, yeah, I’m call-vetting.”
“I dunno,” she sighed. “I just don’t feel like talking to anyone. Anyone except you, that is.”
“So, what’s the plan?”
“A few of us are meeting up –”
“At the Sealink.”
“Tabitha, Tony, I guess — though he hasn’t confirmed. Maybe the Braithwaites.”
“Shiny happy people.”
“Yeah.” She laughed, very briefly, their shared laugh, a kind of lip-smacking hiss. “Shiny happy people. When will you get
“I’m en route now.” He hung up without further ado, then negotiated a flurry of final `Catch you later’s, `We must get together’s and `Next week’s — that ought to have been `Next year’s — before taking the cast-iron stairs down to the street.
Summer London on the far cusp of the rush hour. The gallery wasn’t in Chelsea Harbour, but it might as well have been, for all the relevance that the opening had to the world outside. Simon set off along the Embankment, occasionally peering back over his shoulder to look at the golden ball atop the central tower of the development. Someone had once told him that it rose and fell with the tide, but as he couldn’t tell whether it was low or high tide he was unable to make sense of the balls.
He felt tired and his chest slopped with the sweet phlegm that comes either at the onset or the demise of a lung infection. Simon couldn’t decide which as he gurgled and gobbed his way past the cars crammed in the crook of road leading up to Earls Court. The Braithwaite brothers. Shiny happy people. The Sealink Club. It all meant a late night of shouting, laughing and flirting. A production mounted with a shifting cast of nameless but recurring minor characters. And it all implied getting in at three, or four, or past five, dawn coming in prismatic beams, the world’s furniture haphazardly rearranged by the clumsy removal men of narcotics.
Drugs, he sighed, drugs. Which drugs? The crap London barroom cocaine that managements turned a blind eye to the sale of, knowing that the only effect it had on its snorters was to make them buy more marked-up booze? Yeah, definitely some of that. He could already picture himself chopping and crushing, crammed into some dwarfish toilet stall. And he could already see how it would end up, Sarah and he fucking with the dismal end-of-the-world feel that the crap cocaine imparted. Like two skeletons copulating in a wardrobe, their bones chafing and stridulating. And tomorrow morning, disembodied, ghost-like, he would find himself at the cashpoint, a rime of white powder worked into the embossed numerals on his credit card.
Or perhaps there would be some of the ecstasy that Sarah got hold of, presumably from Tabitha although Simon hadn’t asked. Ecstasy had initially seemed a fraudulent description for the drug, as far as Simon was concerned. The first couple of times he had taken it he’d said to Sarah, “If this is ecstasy, then a drug which produces mild pique could justifiably be called `rage’.” But he’d got the hang of it. Learnt to stop regarding it as a psychedelic, akin to the acid and mushrooms he had — more or more — taken as an art student at the Slade, and understand that it only worked on the interfaces of people’s minds, their relationships with one another. It was a drug of vicariousness, of using another person’s emotions as a prop, a route to abandonment. All conversations on E acquired an adolescent intensity, a titivation of the very possibility of intimacy.
It also had other weird effects. Even with a gut full of liquor and a few honks of crap cocaine on board, a white dove still made Simon feel like penetrating every body in sight. Male, female, whole, crippled, it hardly mattered. What he desired was a flesh pit full of writhing naked bodies, smeared with glycerine; or better still a conga-line of copulation, where a cock-thrust here would produce a cunt-throb way over there.
E-ed up, Simon’s body, like some rain-swelled river, breached its banks and flowed all over the place, all over the people. But Sarah would take him in hand at this point. Like some proficient hydrologist she would enact lightning-quick embanking and canalising work, until he flowed into her.
Yeah, ecstasy. And then they would get home to the Renaissance, home to the golden bower of her bed, where they would pluck and strum upon one another’s mandolin bodies, until they eventually, belatedly came. Eventually, belatedly slept.
I don’t want to get loaded. Simon thought, turning into Tite Street. I don’t feel exactly hot at the moment and there’s a full day’s work to do tomorrow, no shirking. And in the contemplation of the night ahead, with its slalom of toxicities, he assayed his own body, its fit between mind and metabolism, metabolism and chemistry, chemistry and biology, biology and anatomy, anatomy and protective clothing. His toes scrunged in semi-sweat-stiffened hosing, and he felt their fungal deterioration, the gritting of their webbing. His hands felt numb at their finger ends. Simon thought about peripheral neuralgia, and thought of the half-bottle of whisky he skulled most nights, but then again considered it unlikely. Physical addiction to alcohol, that is.
His stomach was inflated now — as if the Chilean wine were still fermenting — so that his walk was counterpointed not simply by the harrumphing and spitting — neat that, between the two front teeth, so that a dash of phlegm hit whichever paving stone he aimed at. He remembered learning it from lads at school, upsetting his fastidious older brother with demonstrations — but also by poot-pooting from between soft-clenched bum cheeks. Like some cartoon, Simon, thought, fart-powered, 2-D.
Simon’s bum exercised him nowadays, as if his arsehole was haltingly learning to talk, in order to inform him that his days were numbered.
He remembered now the business of getting to know new lovers as a young man. How intimacy was defined by sexual interaction: the shared, tacit acknowledgement of the refusal to be embarrassed by a vaginal fart or a premature ejaculation. And how that intimacy was then broadened, given further substance, by a willingness to include the other’s shit and piss and furtive secretions. It all reached a climax with childbirth, with her swollen vagina stretched to tearing, voiding a half-gallon of what appeared to be won ton soup on to the plastic sheeting. And the placenta, organ-that-was-hers and not-hers, maybe even partly his. But no, they didn’t want to fricassee it, on any of the three snacking opportunities, with onions and garlic, so it was removed for incineration, borne in a take-away, cardboard kidney dish.
And now he could no longer face that kind of getting-to-know anyone. He and Sarah had been gasping into one another’s napes for nine months now, but he didn’t want to share the bathroom with her. Not only did he not want to share the bathroom with her, he didn’t even like the idea of her being in the house when his bowels moved. He wouldn’t have minded going to another town to do a shit. His arsehole was sending him internal memoranda on his own mortality — and it leaked. Bowel movements were no longer discrete, his bowels seemed to move all the time, telegraphing him fart bulletins, and faxes of shit-juice that soiled the gussets of his pants in hideous ways. And thinking this Simon paused to hoick at the girding of his waist, trying to give his persecutor a little more air to foul.
Whenever he stopped to contemplate his relationship to this body, this physical idiot twin, it occurred to Simon that something critical must have gone wrong without his noticing. He was bemused to awaken to this insistent reminder of his corporeality. He seemed to recall — within the memory banks of the body itself — those unconstrained, atemporal afternoons of childhood, twilight playing, parental calls to return home like hooting apes in the suburban gloaming; and accompanying that memory, suffusing it like the sunset, a sense of his body as also unconstrained, not as yet inhibited, hemmed-in, by the knowledge of the future, which became like a thermostat, regulating any enjoyment or ease of action, ease of repose.
And now, turning into the King’s Road, past the Duke of York’s barracks where mobile artillery stood immobile, Simon wondered if he could pinpoint the moment when it had all gone wrong. For now his bodily awareness was one solely of constraint, of resistance, of a missing fit between every ligament and bone, every cell and its neighbour. How could it have happened? He thought again of acid trips — they were still there, salient in the three-minute memory defile he was traversing. He remembered the contrived astral trips he and other psychic venturers had taken under its influence. Perhaps in one such he had departed his physical body, but on reentry failed to achieve an exact fit, leaving the psychic and the physical ever so slightly out of registration, like a badly reproduced photograph in a magazine. That’s how it felt, at any rate.
There was that lack-of-fit, and there was the amputation of his children, which had caused another confusion in bodily perception, another more profound discorporation. When his marriage to Jean had collapsed in on itself, like a tower block demolished with carefully placed charges, his children had been five, seven and ten, but his physical relationship with them was unbroken; conscious cables plugged their snot noses and wipeable bums directly into his nervous system. If they nicked or cut themselves the pain was grossly enhanced, amplified, so that Simon felt it as a Sabatier to the intestines, a scalpel to the tendons. If they swooned in babyish fevers, hallucinating concepts and visions — `Daddy, Daddy, I’m Iceland, I’m Iceland’ — he hallucinated with them, climbed alongside them the shoddy Piranesi of the nursery wallpaper, hoicking up a leaf to gain a toehold on a flower.
No matter how much he saw them now, how many times he picked them up from school, how many times he made them oven chips and fish fingers, how many times he petted them, kissed them, told them he loved them, nothing could assuage this sense of wrenching separation, their disjunction from his life. He may not have snacked on the placenta, but somehow the umbilici still trailed from his mouth, ectoplasmic cords, strung across summertime London, snagging on rooftops, car aerials, advertising hoardings, and tied him to their little bellies.
Simon pulled up by a newsagent’s on the brink of Sloane Square. Shiny unhappy girls walked past clad in tabards, chaps, and yokes of leatherette material. He thought briefly of a woman he had fucked in Eaton Square. Fucked in the dead zone between Jean and Sarah. Jean and Sarah, so silly, the caesura: JeanandSarah. Anyway, this woman appeared to Simon now, in Sloane Square, the ghostly set of her flat arranged on the pavement.
Big divan, glass-topped coffee-table, abstract paintings and their two bodies, each selling the other figurative insurance. Touching one another up, in the same sense that a stretch of land might be sung up, created by allusion. Here are breasts, here are hips, here is a cock, there a cunt … Simon wormed her out of her leggings, the leggings like worms pulling away from her shanks, the ankles cheekily rough with stubble, hers and his. He buried his drunk head in the folds of her white belly, the folds slack, skinlaps. They giggled, honked coke, half-naked, his pants round his ankles. They swilled vodka, warm and nasty. When he came to fuck her he had to poke his cock into her with his finger, but she didn’t seem to mind, or didn’t have a mind. One or the other.
Simon struck the set and looked to his right where a freestanding rack of newspapers stood. He scanned the headlines: `More Massacres in Rwanda’, `President Clinton Urges Ceasefire in Bosnia’, `Accusations of Racism in O.J. Simpson Trial’. It wasn’t, he reflected, political news, it was news about bodies, corporetage. Bodies dragged by thin shanks through thick mud, bodies smashed and pulverised, throats slashed red, given free tracheotomies so that the afflicted could breathe their last.
There was some fit here, Simon realised, between the penumbra around his life, the darkness at the edge of the sun, and these bulletins of disembodiment, discorporation updates. His imagination, always too visual, could enter into these headlines readily enough, but only by casting Henry, his eldest, as Hutu; Magnus, the baby, as Tutsi; then watch them rip each other to shreds.
Simon sighed. “It’s a lack of perspective …” and then coughed as a face inclined towards him, for he had involuntarily spoken aloud. He thought of Lucozade, but lacked the energy to broach the shop. He thought of sending the kids a postcard, but all there was on display were cards depicting chimpanzees in humiliating poses, dressed up in tweed jackets, carrying briefcases, with captions underneath reading `In London, thinking of you’. So, instead, he fingered out the joint he had rolled earlier from the breast pocket of his jacket. Simon held the thing in the palm of his hand; it was wrinkled and curved like the penis of a paper tiger. Then he lit it, hoping to fumigate his mind, send the visions scuttling away.
Copyright ” 1997 by Will Self. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.