I must admit, I was very wary of Will Self's novels. Whenever I've seen him on television or heard him on the radio he's seemed so frighteningly intelligent and sneery, and to have such a vast vocabulary, that I couldn't help but think that his books would be impenetrable. And probably not much fun.
But, for some reason, I picked up How the Dead Live last year and really enjoyed it, which prompted me to read Great Apes as my first List book of 2011. He does really have an immense vocabulary (I found having a dictionary to hand quite useful) and both of these books are very clever, but I couldn't describe them as impenetrable. Self is very able to pick up the quirks and idiosyncrasies in people and use them to make his characters almost painfully life-like. Not always very likeable, but always familiar and relate-to-able.
Great Apes focuses on Simon, a high-living artist in London in the '90s who wakes up one morning to find himself in what I guess could be termed an alternate reality, where chimpanzees instead of humans have been evolutionarily dominant. The world he finds himself in is almost identical to the one he left, except that all the 'people' are chimpanzees instead of humans, with a social structure based on that of the chimpanzees.... cue lots of grooming, references to bottoms and the marvellous concept of a 'second breakfast'.
I felt that one of the major successes of this novel was the language and style Self uses. His chimps communicate via a mixture of verbal sounds and sign language, and this is expressed with the sentences (that would be signed) interspersed with the verbal sounds:
"HoooGrnn," Paul vocalised, then gestured to Simon, 'Now Simon, we're not going to hurt you -'
At first I found this quite hard to read, the unfamiliar word/sounds upset the flow of the sentences and kept 'jarring'. But as the book develops, it gradually became more natural and understandable, which seemed to perfectly mirror Simon's gradual acceptance of his 'chimpunity'; as I found the chimp world easier to read and understand, so Simon came to terms with his new body and habits and so I was rooting for him to accept it.
The easy, obvious, subtext to the novel is that of a satire. People are like monkeys, making us aware of how beasty we can be at times, and how the chimps' way of doing things might make more 'logical' sense. But that would be little more than a short story, whereas this managed to both make me aware of 'issues' whilst still being entertaining and engaging. Self seems aware of this, though, as the last exchange between his main characters questions whether the 'conviction that you (Simon) were human and that the evolutionarily successful primate was the human was more in the manner of a satirical trope'? The question isn't answered.