Monday, February 02, 2009

There is only one Ishmael

Well, actually, I guess there are two. But I mean only one post-biblical literary Ishmael. In Moby Dick. I guess it's sort of funny how I just discounted the original Ish, eh?

Anyway, I am currently reading my 'Q' author. This brings me to the upstart, wanna-be Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Ishmael in this book is a gorilla. A gorilla teacher. How can a gorilla teach his pupil? Well, in this case he "talks" via a sort of telepathic communication to his earnest, ex-hippie kind of narrator.

If this is all starting to sound very new age and perhaps silly, well, it is. I've heard about this book for a while, mostly that a)some book lovers I know hated it and b)these days, some high schools are making it required reading. But only adventurous high schools. Of course both of those things did nothing to promise me it would not be very new age and perhaps silly.

I'm having novel issues with it again, as I have with some other letters (O, J...) This one strikes me as particularly not a novel, not even a thinly veiled memoir or anything. It's more like a metaphysical self-help philosophy book that Quinn makes into a novel by giving it two "characters" who have the conversation, instead of Quinn just writing his philosophy for the world to see. I'm 157 or something pages in, and the man and his instructing gorilla never go anywhere or do anything. The man leaves at night and comes back the next day for more instruction. The whole book is dialogue, nearly.

So if one can handle all that and get over the fact that 'Q' is not going to be a novel, what then does one think about Ishmael?

Well, it's a little weird. (Obviously.) But I kind of like some of its ideas: humans think they're not subject to the laws of nature, etc. Most recently, the idea that the gods had a perfectly good reason for telling man he'd "surely die" the day he tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge was pretty fun. I liked the explanation behind that. But I am still convinced as I read it that I'm secretly sitting in Philosophy 101 and not actually reading a novel.

I read a slew of reviews on Good Reads that totally ripped Ishmael up one side and down the other. I half agreed with them. The book is really kind of silly, and yet not. I am currently quite amused with myself when I think, "hmm, I'll just go off and check in with my gorilla for a little while."

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