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.
The usual charges of misanthropy against Self (My Idea of Fun) don't quite apply to this over-the-top evolutionary satire, since it is populated entirely by chimpanzees. The only partial exception is Simon Dykes, the now-divorced avant-garde artist first met in the short story "InclusionR" (published in the collection Grey Area), Self's surreal takeoff on the effects of antidepressant pharmaceuticals. After a night of joyless hedonism, hard drugs and intimate carnality with his Sloane Ranger consort, Sarah, Simon wakes up believing himself human in a world of chimps. That is, he finds it unnatural to use gestures rather than speech to communicate, to accept his alpha's admonitory blows, to put up with social grooming or to mate publicly or endogamously. Only the radical alpha-psychiatrist Zack Busner, a simian Oliver Sacks with a dash of R.D. Laing (from Self's The Quantity Theory of Insanity and "InclusionR"), is prepared to try to return him to chimpunity. During Simon's gradual simianization, Self's sense of humor goes for baroque in scatological satire of anthropology, psychology, semiotics and philosophy. London journalism, the trendy art world, animal rights and "human" decency are all sent up with brio. Great Apes takes these metaphoric monkeyshines as far as they can go, which is just about the end of the novel. Finally, Simon travels to Africa to search for his vanished middle child, Simon Jr., the missing link to his humanity. Although this human-ape quest ends in anticlimax, Simon's pitiful alienation among Self's updated Yahoos (Jonathan Swift meets Jane Goodall) is one of his funniest, and perversely touching, jests yet. 30,000 first printing; $50,000 ad/promo; author tour.