I, Chimp

Nathan Grover

Somewhere, cooped up between the walls of a worn metaphor, a chimpanzee stoops over a typewriter. Ook, tap . . . ook, eek, tap, tap . . . Given enough time, a scientist explains, this chimpanzee will eventually bang out the works of William Shakespeare. This is to illustrate that the most unlikely scenario, even life on this planet, is possible given an eternity to play itself out. Though this chimpanzee/typewriter metaphor seems much more feasible with someone like Burroughs than Shakespeare, let's run with it anyway. Let's say that one day our tired little friend reels from his typewriter a word perfect, immaculately punctuated, pristinely formatted manuscript of A Mid-Summer Night's Dream. He's holding the eloquent verses in his awkward gnawed hands. Is it Shakespeare?

Along the path to A Mid-Summer Night's Dream the chimp also produces many lesser works, among them this very essay. How does this essay read differently once you know it's only the random jabbings of an illiterate ape? Note how these lines transform before your eyes, from the literary musings of a grad student to an epic struggle of one chimp against incalculable odds.

In Jorge Luis Borges' story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, Menard stays up nights crafting and re-crafting "the most significant writing of our time", ironically a verbatim copy of Cervantes' Don Quixote. Of the two Quixotes Borges says, "the second is almost infinitely richer." After all, the prose of a 17th century Spaniard has a completely different meaning when it comes from a 20th century Frenchman.

It really does matter who writes what we read. Stories don't just happen; they come from some place. A story is a product of the views, experiences, and sensibilities of the writer. The writer and the story inhabit the same world. The source, like plot or character, is an important clue through which we derive meaning from a story.

For many writers this idea has been a departure point from traditional narrative. Under the heading of meta-fiction writers continue to undermine the story's neatly self-contained world. Take John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse for instance, where running side by side the plot is a commentary by Barth on the craft of the very story we're reading: conventions of italicization, methods of characterization, theories of incremental perturbation. We see the girders and trusses of the proverbial funhouse i.e. the story, stripped bare and the writer peeking through at us. We recognize that Lost in the Funhouse is not just a story, it's Barth's story, a product of his imagination and craft. Traditional narrative, what John Gardner calls the "continuous, vivid dream" has been completely disrupted, and the reader is in for a fitful sleep.

Another meta-fictionist tactic, and one with special appeal to our Chimp-speare dilemma, is the self-insertion of the author into the text as a character.

At first glance we might think that Kurt Vonnegut loves talking about himself. (And really, who doesn't?) His first few books, while zany and profound don't stray far from the "continual, vivid dream" concept of the traditional novel, but it's not long before he waxes autobiographical with Slaughterhouse Five (1969). Later he surpasses even autobiography. In Breakfast of Champions (1973), Vonnegut steps out of a Plymouth Duster and into the final scene, setting free his famous character, Kilgore Trout, like a penitent slave owner.

The narrative spotlight must've warmed him some because we see more and more of Vonnegut in his books thereafter. Timequake (1997) is a book about the trouble he had writing a book called Timequake. God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian (1999) is a series of interviews conducted by Kurt Vonnegut in the afterlife, bouncing ideas off the likes of Mary Shelley, Isaac Asimov, and our chimp's mentor, William Shakespeare. The presence of Vonnegut as a character in his stories, much like Barth's parallel commentary, exposes the story as a contrivance. The story becomes self-reflexive—the story is about the story now, endlessly complicated, like two mirrors reflecting opposite one another.

Self-insertion has its theoretical merit as well. It's a tactic by which writers tackle the heavy-weight literary issue of authority. "In our age reliability is always a critical issue in any narrative, political, ideological, fictional, or otherwise," says Alyce Miller in her essay, "A Container of Multitudes." "Contemporary readers [are] no longer satisfied with being preached to or openly manipulated by an 'author' in the intrusive way our nineteenth-century counterparts were." With this post-structuralist notion readers now look up from Dickens', "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" saying, "Oh was it now?" and, "Says who?" We depend on multiple reference points, like triangulation, to describe our world more accurately.

The honest point of view, the only one to which a writer can claim any authority, is her own. We are happy to see a writer come clean as she implicates herself in the fictive lie. Her story is more obviously the product of a writer, admittedly subjective, not an attempt at objective reality which we all know to be a hoax.

Writers have inserted themselves into their stories to different effects. Yann Martel's Life of Pi is an interesting example from the past few years, because even my non-bookish friends have read it. In the beginning of the novel, Yann Martel has found himself in the French quarter of India trying to hash out his second book when he finds a man with a story that will "make you believe in God." The origin of the story (which we assume is true) blurs with the story itself. Where does the non-fiction end and the fiction begin? This tension creates a heightened suspension of disbelief (which may very well be important in a book about a boy whose first mate is a hungry tiger). When I talk to my friends about this book, I see their nostrils flare and sense their quickened pulse, just the way I felt when faced with the possibility of believing this crazy miraculous story. In Martel's case, inserting himself into the story provides a new reading experience and heightened pleasure to the reader.

For writer Robert Glück, inserting himself into his fiction is more than a trick to liven things up, it's his ideal. In his collection of short stories Denny Smith, the main character is always Robert Glück: Robert Glück parting with a lover, Robert Glück in his garden, Robert Glück taking in some porn. When questioned at a recent USF reading about the motives behind this form (coined "New Narrative"), Glück said he sought to "make the personal political." Like recreating the dinosaur from one small bone, he becomes a test case by which the greater society can be observed. In a story like "Forced Story: Conviction," a very real Robert Glück is inserted into a very surreal plot to steal gardening tools. He simultaneously captures the intimacy of memoir while speaking at the high volume of fiction. Thus Glück exposes the story, all stories really, as mixtures of fact and make-believe. What we do know to be true about this story is that it's all Robert Glück. Made up or not, it is his experience of the world. We can finally stop differentiating between how much of this story is the author and how much is the story. There really is no difference.

Seeing that stories are so intimately tied to their tellers, we also see that the scientist's chimpanzee/typewriter metaphor fails. Given an eternity the chimp would NOT write Shakespeare, though it be word by word the same. But fortunately, he would've created something much better. All hail that chimp. He is no hack. That dedicated ape has added something fresh and exciting to the canon of literature, something heretofore missing: not just Shakespeare, which we already had, but a chimpanzee's experience writing Shakespeare.