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3.3 out of 5 stars49
3.3 out of 5 stars
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on 21 June 2008
To begin with I struggled with this book. I have never had to reach for the dictionary so often and I started to wonder if this was pure author self-indulgence. I had a similar sentiment of being privy to the personal bugbears of Will Self in his deliverance of unsubtle digs at various categories of people, for example sycophants, through the vehicle of ape behaviour. There is only so many times that variations on a joke about "ass-licking" can make you smile. However, setting the Selfish agenda aside and persevering through the first chapters I enjoyed the book more and more. The interest and challenge emerged in being asked to view human behaviour in its proximity to that of other apes. As the main character Simon Dykes struggled to accept that he was not a human being but an ape, the way people behave towards each other came to the fore. In the end it was even hopeful in revealing some overlay of human dignity on an animal foundation. The book is long and rambling but there is enough here to make it worth reading. Its last line is almost poignant and at the same time made me laugh more than the previous 400 pages.
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VINE VOICEon 31 August 2004
The book starts with the preparations for the central character, Simon Dyke's, latest exhibition. Dyke is a young London artist who lives in a world of rubbish drugs, socialising in shallow artistic circles, with life punctuated by meaningless and tawdry acts of copulation, the latter being described in really unpleasant and almost medically graphic language. We assume at the start of the book that we are dealing with a regular London, populated by human beings. After a night of low grade cocaine, slightly better Es and the inevitable unthinking intercourse, followed by lurid dreams where he and his girlfriend are chimps violently mating, Dykes awakes to find that he really is a chimp...and London is now populated with chimps. He is hospitalised at Charing Cross and his condition becomes the clinical case for the consultant in neurology and an eminant psycho-physiologist - both of course chimps. There Dykes mental breakdown and belief that he is human are investigated.
Once you get over the opening of the book - which will put you off enjoying sex for a goodish while - and move into the London of the chimps, the humour really kicks in. Really the joke is no deeper than a PG Tips commercial - the juxtaposition of putting chimpanzees in human clothing in a human world - but it is superbly realized. You'll come to love the terms 'pant-hoot', 'knuckle-walk' and 'go bipedal'. The way Self handles this anthropomorphising of chimps, and primatomorphising of humans, is just genius. The chimps are civilised in all ways, but their chimpness is retained and manifested is hilarious ways; sub-adults (teenage youths) are still sullen and insolent, the eminent professor will arrive home to his Group and discuss his day at the office whilst all around is vigorous inter-generational incestuous mating and casual displays of swollen anuses (perhaps the unpleasant human sexual behaviour at the start of the book was intended to contrast with the innocent and functional mating of the chimps, to show what dark shadows we humans throw on what is essentially the same act).
When Professor Busner visits Charing Cross to meet Dr Bowen to see the patient for the first time, there are primal displays of professional respect for the visiting clinician amongst the hospital staff, namely barking, horripilating and kicking of inanimate objects, immediately followed by regular discussion of the's laugh-out-loud funny. When travelling by train, first class, Busner is infuriated by the use of mobile phones and so decides it's time for a 'display' as Alpha to get them to put the phones away.
The sub-plots are nicely developed and neatly resolved. This is my first Self book, but will definitely not be my last.
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Thought provoking: the thoughts it provokes are centred on the fact that chimps are the same everywhere and human beings are not - primitive societies all differ from one another and advanced societies even more so. If we ask why this is, it must have something to do with human adaptability; also potentially with the fact that we have both a left and a right hand side to the brain. Chimps, to judge from Self's novel, don't have time for all that boring left hand side of the brain work that gives rise to modern society.

So this description - essentially of a series of tableaux in which Self describes how chimps would set about interactions with one another (mating; grooming; dominance and caring) and with the environment (eating: first and second breakfast, first, second and third lunch and so on) - but against the presupposition that they have otherwise created the world in which we now live. It is just a series of tableaux, however, with a plot designed to show of Self's virtuosity in desription of the ape way of life - and his virtuosity is considerable. It isn't really a plot, to speak of. Nor are there characters to speak of. It's all about situations.

What it's not: Animal Farm (satire on corruption of political belief systems among human beings); Timbuktu (dogs subject to the same radical chance in their lives as human beings in the Paul Auster world); Under The Skin (Michael Faber; story of return to psychic health of more advanced female actually transformed into human shape, more or less, by plastic surgery - passionate defence of vegeterarianism, genuinely gripping plot and theme).
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on 25 November 2001
Having read Will Self before and gained some knowledge of was to come, I armed myself with the pocket Chambers dictionary and got down to business. Some of Self's previous books digress from the narrative so much as to make the plot practically unintelligible. A case in point is the aptly named 'The Quantitative Theory of Insanity'; having said this, I found Great Apes to be very readable. The humour is frequently on the dark edge which will be no surprise to most Self fans', however I found Great Apes to be very perceptive and richly comic.

A brief plot description goes as follows. One too many pills and hard nights out results in the artist Simon Dykes waking up to find the world populated by chimps, everyone he knows is covered in thick fur, but carrying on as if nothing was wrong. Self cleverly exploits the situation to satirise some quirky habits of human nature and strange conventions of `polite society'. Various things are lampooned including sexual and racial politics, mating behaviour, social hierarchies... right down to the way people behave at parties.

Will self is one of the few genuine satirists about, and although he can be hit and miss, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it highly. What goes on in that man's head, nobody knows!
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VINE VOICEon 23 June 2013
This is a leaden satire which soon becomes tedious. The world has been taken over by very promiscuous chimpanzees who behaved like humans in some respects. Lost on me but I persevered to the end. I prefer Self's food reviews in the New Statesman where his humour is punchy and witty. There's not enough here for a novel.
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on 8 February 2002
Simon, the "hero" of the book, awakes from an over indulgance in drink and drugs to find that all humanity has apparently metamorphosed into chimpanzees. And so everybody behaves very differently. Sexual etiquet, family relationships, social interaction and communication are all very different from the way they are in human society. And yet in many ways the basic motivations and predjudices are so similar, especially in the chimps' attitudes to other great apes. The book describes how friends and family try to cure him of his delusion that he is human, and how he struggles to decide whether he really is drug-damaged human or deluded chimp. Thus it presents humanity through a slightly distorting mirror. Although slightly too long, it is a fascinating account of both human and chimp behaviour. I though it was a very original and refreshing read.
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on 20 August 2010
Great Apes is the second Will Self book I have read recently in an attempt to familiarise myself with critically acclaimed modern fiction (the other was "How the Dead Live"). The book focuses on an alternate world which is deliberately identical to our world save that the society is characterised by intelligent chimps. The juxtaposition is the main source of Self's humour. The story is based around the character Simon Dykes who is an eminent artist who experiences a form of drug induced mental breakdown in which he believes that he's the only human within that society (albeit trapped within a chimps body).The story evolves from this episode and centres on attempts by the chimp society and particularly an alternative physchiatrist (and former TV personality)named Zak Busner to rehabilitate him.

Self creates a very detailed, and I found, somewhat disturbing image, of an evolved chimp society where despite their intelligence the fundamentals of chimp behaviour are layered into a cosmopolitan London landscape, i.e mass public sex chains, displays of swollen rear ends as a formal greeting, hierarchical dominance displays and so forth. This is intriguing at first however I soon became tired of the often unnecessarily lewd and sexually perverse material. It is incomparable with a true satire such as Swift's Gullivers Travels.

What strikes me about Self's writing is that he uses flowery prose and words that you have never heard of to flesh out his narrative. Most of which is unnecessary, surely the mark of a good author is to guide the reader through an enjoyable and comprehensible narrative! Self attempts to impose upon the reader how clever and verbose he is often by the range of vocabulary used! Read a Hemingway novel to see that the use of words is to colour the story and guide the reader through the narrative, not for the prose to be an end in itself i.e showboating..

The story fizzles out in the end and I was glad to finish as it was an ardous process whilst sometimes illuminating mainly tedious and smacks of Self's vanity rather than any useful commentary on the human condition.
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on 19 May 2013
I really enjoyed this book once it got going. It certainly doesn't deserve some of the bad reviews I have read on here. It starts slow in the sense that it takes a while to understand where the plot is going, but chapter by chapter disparate parts of the story are brought together with consummate masterstrokes. My tip, keep reading til the very end, author's notes and footnotes included.
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on 3 December 2012
I tried to read this but only got as far as the first chapter and I found that my mind kept wandering! Just not my sort of read - however, it was a book group read and the group was divided between those who loved it and those who hated it....I shall try to read it again at a later date as I am not often defeated with a book! Perhaps I was just not in the right frame of mind.
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on 19 March 2013
Why use a normal word when you can use an obscure one? I'm fairly well-read, but I had to use the kindle dictionary several times per page. It felt sometimes as if Will Self had deliberately looked through the thesaurus for the most arcane word possible to cover his meaning. I wanted him in front of me so I could slap him & tell him to stop it, which is probably why I only managed to get through four chapters before giving it up as a waste of time.

It's a shame because the concept of the book was so good, I was excited to read it.
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