Do You Feel Lucky?

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

From The Bookshelf: Daniel Quinn's Ishmael

I did read Ishmael. I have to say I didn't like it. Oh, I loved the psychic gorilla! He was a sweetheart, and a wise guy, and even of the ridiculous things he said, you could easily see how a gorilla in that situation could have come to such a view. And even believe it. But the voice of the author character was just so overbearing. Grating and self-righteous about everything! First about his own cocksure knowitall ignorance, then about his newfound self-righteous cocksure gorilla-based purity - his superiority in the gorilla-proven fact of everyone else's ignorance. Perhaps "I didn't like it" is not really true. I loved Ishmael very much, I simply found Ishmael to be...not itself unpleasant, not wholly unpleasant, but still. When asked about Ishmael, the book, what springs to mind first and strongest is the lingering taste of curdled self-righteousness.

I've thought, "hey, maybe we're supposed to see the narrator character as a prick?" But there's no real question about that, is there? Of course we're supposed to see him as a prick. What are our options? Yet it's off-putting how Quinn seems to expect the reader to identify with that character as a seeker. Now, supposing I can make myself believe Quinn sees the two main characters as each very much off-base, in different ways, in their various observations and inferences - if I can buy that, the book becomes in my mind much more enjoyable! But I can't really buy that. Quinn clearly means us to regard the narrator as some kind of zealous convert/prophet "enlightened sinner" who has been brought round to Big, Real Truths, while Ishmael is to be taken not just as a saint, but as someone whose views we should take at face value. A real shame, because the character has potential to be and mean more than that. Who doesn't love a telepathic gorilla?

Also, you cannot tell me that girl (the rich one, the daughter) was not boning the gorilla. You notice he left that part out of his little life story! I mean, that's not necessarily any of our business, and I don't insist on it, really. In fact I only just thought of that now! Still, the idea that we could live in a world in which Daniel Quinn might casually slip something like that into a book like this - how delightfully skewed would that be? And how true to life. And why not? Why not write a book ponderous with the weighty wisdom of worlds at stake, and then the title character, your talking gorilla Ishmael, come to save the day and set us all straight - and as he's laying out his lessons and his life story, he just slips that little detail in! Why not? It wouldn't radically change the story, would it? It wouldn't change the story at all!

But we know: we don't live in that kind of world. Quinn's well aware that if he had put that in there, the whole slant of the book would have been changed for people. Imagine reading along, getting enlightened by all this laid-back matter-of-fact wisdom our simian messiah has such a seemingly endless supply of, and then suddenly - HOLY SHIT SHE F***** THE GORILLA? But it really is none of our business. Probably best Quinn left that part out, on balance.

Point is: you know they were. You can't tell me that didn't happen! Part of me wants to say "hey, that's just sick dude, we're talking about Ishmael here, it's a freaking sensitive classic from the age of new age woked-up responsibility," but the other part wants to stand back from humanity a bit, at the distance of stereotypical visiting space aliens, and say "What's the deal on this mixed fascination and repulsion? All that fuss over some organ interaction and fluid exchange!" You have to feel that a super-enlightened ape wouldn't be so beholden to those kinds of taboos.

So that's all from me on Ishmael. Except you know what? I've decided to revise my opinion! I liked it. Next time someone asks, I will have that to say.

And lest you get it wrong, my reversal has nothing to do with whether or not there was or wasn't any unspoken bestiality backstory angle. Goodness. That poor woman had a hard enough life - and so did the poor ape for that matter! So what if they consoled each other in such ways? It ill becomes you or me to point, gawp and snicker! Fie upon this bedamned residual Victorianist prudiana!

Mind you, I'm against bestiality on the whole. Let's get that straight right now. There are principles involved. I can't consider most animals to be capable of consent, for one thing. Something like that would likely be a very confusing, probably unpleasant and possibly even traumatic experience for the animal, and we have no way of knowing. What right do we have to treat a fellow creature as a mere accessory to our pleasure? None, unless they volunteer for such treatment. In which case, hey, why not? But it needs to be a mutual, full-on consent deal, and that presupposes beings who are each fully capable of giving consent and communicating consent. In the real world, guess who that rules out? Gorillas. Hell, even those sign-language gorillas - are you really going to tell me that thing's learning and understanding are on a level with an 18 year old? Or if the gorilla is British, a sixteen year old? You see immediately how suddenly we muddy the waters, tracking these kinds of questions into it. I'm just against it, that's all. Humans have no business presuming a thing like that. Just to get their jollies!

Ishmael, though, is a being as fully sapient as any human. He's certainly capable, not only of an informed consent, but of communicating that consent without ambiguity. So those usual scruples don't apply to him, do they? No, they go right out the window. A psychic gorilla, easily our equal or better in matters of mind, would be an equal participant in any such union. How dare we judge otherwise? Nevertheless: it's hardly our business, as I said. And it should not make the slightest difference to how we see the story. So GROW UP.

I assure you, it makes no difference either way to how I see it. My reversal on the review verdict is a simple, honest recognition that my affection for the gorilla, in the end, outweighs my distaste for the obnoxious voice of the narrator. Ishmael is one of the great characters of literature, powerfully drawn and affecting.

She was boning him.


Anonymous said...

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dogimo said...

Thanks, Skyline Spirit!