In the midst of a severe depression, where government officials are obsessed with micromanaging everything they can lay their hands on in the name of efficiency and the public good, Benjamin Cade loses his teaching job and finds himself, along with the majority of the population, unemployed. Unable to pay back his student loans, Ben must face the logical conclusion, and Darin Bradley’s haunting extrapolation, of viewing education as a product to be bundled and sold: His degrees in literature and literary theory will have to be repossessed.
In Darin Bradley’s debut Noise, which I reviewed previously, the US has fully collapsed in on itself. In Chimpanzee, the country stands at the edge of a very sharp knife, with chronic unemployment a reality and people having to depend on government handouts to make ends meet. Times have gotten so dire that taxes are no longer seen as a nuisance, but as something desirable, since it means there is money to be taxed. Those unable to pay their loans must do so by joining the “Homeland Renewal Project,” where they will be assigned various menial jobs, which will be supervised by armed guards. They’re prisoners, in essence — prisoners to their own debt.
If someone is unable to pay back their student loans, however, like Ben, not only must they report to Renewal, but they will also have to go through a therapy program where every memory of their studies, every association they have made, will be suppressed by making their brain believe them to be traumatic experiences, hence becoming inaccessible. As Ben explains:
They can’t take the data out of your head. That’s impossible. They just make it something traumatic. Something to squirrel away in the small dark of your lower consciousness, where it becomes nightmares and suppressed experiences and terrible memories. The brain does the work for them by protecting itself from what’s become unpleasant. It’s like forgetting. Eating the lotus.
Since memories don’t exist in a vacuum but are connected with one another through context and association, something Ben references numerous times, Ben’s loss of memory also impinges on his memories of his wife Sireen, whom he met while in college. This notion, that memories are associated with one another and that the loss of one will impinge on the other, could have had its consequences better explored, as the Ben we see towards the end of the book is largely the same one we saw in the beginning, just missing the large body of knowledge he’d acquired in his studies.
Recruitment is a discipline unto itself. Governments, revolutions, and religions know this. It is an application of rhetoric — how to align someone’s disposition with an ideal, an action, which is usually anathema to personal fulfillment. How do you convince a suicide bomber? How do you sell laundry detergent? How do you sell university enrollment? You don’t. Nothing can be described, nothing portrayed or sold, in any fashion that induces action. You sell, instead, a world without your product. You sell longing and regret, which are cheap. You sell hindsight, insurance — which is nothing but a life without.
As his memories get repressed, Ben decides to teach a free-form class on rhetoric to everyone who wants to listen to him, a small act of rebellion that jumpstarts the web of conspiracies that will envelop him later.
The other science fictional element Darin introduces us to is chimping, a technology that allows its wearers to experience just about every psychological condition that you can think of, from depression to OCD. As the novel moves forward, we learn that it is also possible to chimp personalities, like a genius mathematician for example, or ideas, like Revolution. It’s a neat idea, and it ends up explaining how it is possible to repossess someone’s memory, but it never feels grounded in the world of Chimpanzee. The reality of chimping seems to change as well, with Ben noticing that the bar he goes to now has chimping goggles and that the first minutes are free, as if chimping is still a rather limited activity that only those with the requisite discretionary money can afford, while later on everyone seems to have their own chimping goggles.
Like one of Ben’s students, I am not sure I entirely understood what Darin Bradley was trying to convey with Chimpanzee. At times I felt that the stream-of-consciousness style hindered more than helped in conveying what was going on, both in the scene and its significance to the overall plot and theme. Sometimes the style got too unrestrained, too random, which made me have to stop reading several times to backtrack and figure out just what was happening and its implications.
There are books where, even if you don’t get what the author was trying to convey, you know that the author was conveying some theme with the book; you just weren’t able to get it. By contrast, there are books where events are deliberately unconnected and unrelated, a sort of snapshot of events that lead nowhere in particular. Chimpanzee presents itself as a book belonging in the former category, even though it sometimes feels as if it is explicitly trying to make the reader give up and throw the book, or e-reader, against the wall, because of its interlocking periods of apparent geniality and mumbling confusion. That other reviews don’t go deeper than the superficial elements of the novel seems to imply that others may have been faced with these same difficulties. Even so, different readers will get different mileages out of Chimpanzee, and even though mine was suboptimal, I still fully agree with what I wrote in my review of Darin Bradley’s debut: it’s a shame there isn’t more buzz surrounding both the author and his titles.