A Fresh Take On Dystopia In 'Chimpanzee'
The recent wave of dystopian novels — okay, let's call it a glut — has focused attention on all kinds of Earth-threatening ills, from climate change to genetically modified food. The plight of student-loan debtors and struggling academics, however, hasn't usually topped that list. Which is partly what makes Darin Bradley's latest novel, Chimpanzee, so fascinating, flaws and all. Set in a chilling, near-future America where economic collapse has begun to unravel the fabric of society, the book probes parts of the apocalyptic psyche that few writers have acknowledged, let alone mined.
In Chimpanzee, Benjamin Cade is a laid-off Ph.D., formerly employed by a private university that's gone bankrupt in the wake of the New Depression. His wife remains at her teaching post partly due to the fact that her field, mathematics, is far more practically valuable than Benjamin's discipline: literature. The federal government — destitute, desperate and bordering on a police state — has instituted a new program of education repossession. If you default on your student loans, you're forced to undergo an electro-chemical "therapy" that erases from your brain everything you learned in college.
While Benjamin submits and then slowly succumbs to this procedure, he tries to cling to his dwindling identity as an academic by teaching free classes in a public park, to whoever will show up. This small act of rebellion starts to dovetail with a larger one, an underground revolution called the Chimpanzee Movement — named for the monkey masks its followers wear — that's reacting against the violation of civil liberties in this brave, micromanaged new world. Meanwhile, the word "chimp" has taken on yet another meaning: Chimping is a new virtual-reality fad that allows users to experience the mental and emotional states of others, including, perversely enough, psychological ailments like OCD and paranoia.
The premise might easily have worked as some kind of post-apocalyptic satire. Instead, Bradley plays it straight. Sometimes a little too straight. Smart as it is, Chimpanzee doesn't wield much wit besides a few clever bits of banter, and even those exchanges feel forced and self-mocking. The only time Benjamin's sour façade cracks slightly is when he makes snide jokes to himself about how intellectually lacking his new students are.
It makes sense that Chimpanzee is not a happy book, but it's not very dynamic, either. It's relentlessly bitter, serious and locked in existential-crisis mode. On top of that, Benjamin is not a sympathetic character. He's supercilious and self-absorbed, and it's hard to tell if that's Bradley's intention. If it is, it's not clear what purpose it serves besides fostering the stereotype of the stiff, effete intellectual. Thankfully, Benjamin does evolve, even if it happens a little later than it should. It all hinges on the ordeal he's put through during his educational repossession. As pieces of his academic knowledge are systematically amputated, so are other parts of his mind, and a series of fragmented flashbacks about the courtship of his wife — which previously felt incidental — takes on a haunted tone. At that point, the book finally begins to resonate.
The most obvious influence on Chimpanzee is George Orwell's 1984, but under that dystopian surface, it shares more with Flowers for Algernon, the late Daniel Keyes' harrowing character study of a man who gains and then loses great intelligence. Benjamin's own decline could have carried a lot more pathos, but Bradley plays it close to the chest. When he lays his cards down at last, it's quietly devastating.
Chimpanzee isn't overly generous in the emotion department, but when it comes to ideas, it's lavish. Like Benjamin, Bradley holds a Ph.D., and he's not shy about showing it. The book bursts with exposition about rhetoric, pedagogy and philosophy, up to and including the parallel it draws between Benjamin's lessons in the park and Socrates' similar discussions in ancient Athens. Better yet, they're all tried intricately and inextricably with the plot; even when Bradley seems to go off on a tangent, it winds up not being a tangent at all, but a way to frame the big questions his story churns up.
As with the best dystopian fiction, Chimpanzee taps into many contemporary issues and fears — in this case, everything from the surveillance state to the student-debt crisis. Chimpanzee is a post-collapse novel for those who have become numb to them, and a unique take on a subgenre in sore need of one. The book's dazzling originality not only helps overcome much of its dryness, it makes it well worth the extra homework.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.