Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn
A great idea poorly executed.
I really had high hopes for this book. The subject matter—a talking gorilla who reveals some great truth about mankind—seemed to be something that would really appeal to me. I read about the first third of the book and then skipped to the last two chapters in frustration.
Unfortunately, Daniel Quinn is a very poor and uninspiring writer. Though clear and grammatically correct, I get the impression that prior to trying fiction he probably had a job writing instruction manuals for assemble-yourself furniture: Insert rod A into slat B and turn until firmly in place. Yeah, it was that exciting.
The story involves a talking gorilla named Ishmael and an unnamed human protagonist. Ishmael has some great understanding about humans that he wants to share, and he is looking for a student to whom he can reveal this great truth.
The character development was extremely poor. Both Ishmael and the protagonist were like cardboard cutouts, and their conversations had all the passion of two strangers chatting on the bus.
Also, there was nothing especially gorilla-like about Ishmael, and he could have been written as an antelope, a dolphin, or a desk chair. The protagonist was no better, and he seemed to exist solely to keep the conversation going by saying "okay," "I don't understand," "explain," and "tell me more."
Other than a few introductory paragraphs giving a synopsis of each character’s background, we really knew nothing about them. They didn’t come across as real, and there was certainly nothing to make them important to the reader, or encourage us to identify with them. Being able to identify or empathize with a character is a very, very important aspect of writing. Quinn doesn’t get that, I suppose. (Example: Consider Harry Potter. A lot of people really care about what happens to that boy, even though he is only a fictional character. He is someone to whom so many of us can relate.)
Additionally, Quinn completely glosses over exactly how Ishmael learned to talk by simply having Ishmael state that it wasn’t important to discuss that at the present time. (Though, like I said, I didn’t read the whole book. This may have been addressed later, but I doubt it was. It struck me that Quinn simply didn’t want to put his mind to figuring out how a gorilla might learn to speak and reason. It seems to me that that could have been the most interesting feature of the book.)
I'll give Quinn an A for the idea, but a D- for execution. This would have been much better if his idea has been expressed as a serious 1,000-word essay instead of a 200+ page book of fiction. - DG
P.S. The film adaptation based loosely on this book is Instinct, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Anthony Hopkins.