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ISHMAEL by Daniel Quinn


by Daniel Quinn

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1992
ISBN: 0-553-07875-5
Publisher: Bantam

Here's the novel that, out of 2500 submissions, won the ecological-minded Turner Tomorrow Award—and caused a mutiny among the judges when it was awarded the $500,000 first prize. Is it that good—or bad? No, but it's certainly unusual, even eccentric, enough to place Quinn (the paperback Dreamer, 1988) on the cult literary map. What's most unusual is that this novel scarcely is one: beneath a thin narrative glaze, it's really a series of Socratic dialogues between man and ape, with the ape as Socrates. The nameless man, who narrates, answers a newspaper ad (``TEACHER seeks pupil...'') that takes him to a shabby office tenanted by a giant gorilla; lo! the ape begins to talk to him telepathically (Quinn's failure to explain this ability is typical of his approach: idea supersedes story). Over several days, the ape, Ishmael, as gruff as his Greek model, drags the man into a new understanding of humanity's place in the world. In a nutshell, Ishmael argues that humanity has evolved two ways of living: There are the ``Leavers,'' or hunter-gatherers (e.g., Bushmen), who live in harmony with the rest of life; and there are the ``Takers'' (our civilization), who arose with the agricultural revolution, aim to conquer the rest of life, and are destroying it in the process. Takers, Ishmael says, have woven a ``story'' to rationalize their conquest; central to this story is the idea that humanity is flawed—e.g., as told in the Bible. But not so, Ishmael proclaims; only the Taker way is flawed: Leavers offer a method for living well in the world. After Ishmael dies of pneumonia, his newly converted pupil can only ponder the ape's parting message: ``WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN?'' A washout as a story, with zero emotional punch; but of substantial intellectual appeal as the extensive Q&A passages (despite their wild generalities and smug self-assurance) invariably challenge and provoke: both Socrates and King Kong might be pleased.