Will Self reflects on the origins of his novel Great Apes, which first burst onto the page in 1996. The disturbing and hilarious story of a Turner Prize-winning artist, undergoing treatment for a psychotic delusion that he’s human, is being brought to the stage by Patrick Marmion, in its very first stage adaptation.
In the early 1990s I was reading a lot of books about zoology, ethology and primatology. Reading these – and becoming insidiously aware of an existentially queasy fact: humanity’s closest living relative – the chimpanzee – would most likely become extinct, in the wild, within my own lifetime.
The great satires on the animality of Man had danced strange attendance on the ‘discovery’ of the anthropoid African apes by the European adventurers of the 17th and 18th centuries. And it’s worth noting that early taxonomies placed the apes higher on the chain of being than some of Africa’s human inhabitants. Swift’s Yahoos gave birth to a whole lineage of hairy travesties – out of Thomas Love Peacock’s Sir Oran Haut-Ton, by way of Kafka’s Report to the Academy; surely, the semi-conscious acknowledgement of truths to be revealed by genetics in the last century: we can take a blood transfusion from a chimpanzee, so closely are we related – while chimps themselves fashion tools, indulge in politics and symbolic representation.
It became my objective to write the ape satire that would mark our annihilation of our near-conspecific: a prolonged and clamorous howl of approaching species-loneliness. My tactics were simple: to pile detail-upon-detail of chimp/human physical correspondence, until my readers had no option but to accept – in their very guts, muscles and sinews – the reality of their kinship. To that end, while I was writing Great Apes, I practiced the method, and knuckle-walked around the place, occasionally drumming on surfaces and giving vent to tremendous pant-hoots. Fortunately, I lived alone at the time – and in deep country.
Since the novel’s publication in 1996, from time-to-time a reader has told me of an uncanny experience, when, looking up from its pages at the strap-hangers surrounding them on the tube, they’ve been transported to their own aboriginal estate. And, yes – I’ve been pleased by this. But if satire aims at the moral reform of society – and in this case, the reform of all human society, then my novel has manifestly not been a success.
Twenty-two years on, we’re only that much closer to the moment when the deoxyribonucleic ladder connecting us to the rest of the living world is kicked away, and, like some idiotic cartoon species, we’re left, our myriad bare legs fervidly bicycling for a few moments, until we plunge into the void. Which is why I’m delighted that my novel has been adapted for the stage. Perhaps a more kinetic medium will finally drive the message home hard – like a flung handful of faeces: those who do not remember to live in the full light of their animality, may well be doomed to die by it.