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.

Tags: Daniel Quinn, Ishmael, books, fiction, gorilla, reading, writing

Views: 166

Replies to This Discussion

I think whether a person enjoys a book or not depends on who they are as a person, their age, and things like that. I have found that a book I liked in my youth will no longer appeal to me now that I'm older.

Like you, I tend to read more non-fiction. But when I do read fiction, I'm serious about good character development and good writing.
I like the book but you are right in that it isn't terribly exciting. He actually meant it as a vehicle for his ideas on why society is the way it is and how it should be. He gets history wrong for the most part and some of his ideas are a bit out there but he does bring up some interesting ideas. He, as noted by Meag, wrote a sequel and a companion. If you didn't like the first don't bother with the other two. It's kind of like a literary version of the Matrix film series in that the first was good but no where near as good as it was made out to be. What follows basically sucks. I think Quinn got caught in his own hype and trying come across as far more than he could deliver on.
I think Quinn got caught in his own hype and trying come across as far more than he could deliver on.

You may very well be right. It is an interesting idea, but like I said, it would have been a better essay.
DG gives a rather painful and critical review of an excellent work of fiction. Perhaps if he had read the entire book his review might have been more reasonable. I read this book for the first time back in 1995 and remember not wanting to put it down after chapter 4. I have since purchased all other availabe books by Daniel Quinn and recommend them to anyone and everyone with an open and analytical mind. I have even purchased several copies of Ishmael and given them as gifts to friends, relatives, co-workers and aquaintances. For me, reading Ishmael was like taking the blinders off and seeing the world in a whole new light. I cinsider quinn's books to be among the many keys that opened me up to atheism.
For me, reading Ishmael was like taking the blinders off and seeing the world in a whole new light. I cinsider quinn's books to be among the many keys that opened me up to atheism.

Joseph, I like the idea behind the book, just not its execution.
Fair enough. Not everyone sees things the same way. If we did, then life would be boring. Diversity is a good thing.
Not everyone sees things the same way.

That is very true, and is indeed a good thing. That goes for all things in life. It is good that we don't all want to drive the same kind of car, or eat the same kind of food, or date the same kind of person, etc. A natural inclination to diversity and adaptability of likes and dislikes probably has a number of advantages for the survival of a species (though this is getting way off topic).

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