I said nice things in these pages a while back about Darin Bradley’s debut novel Noise, an ambitious book about a slow-motion apocalypse, with economic collapse triggering a breakdown of order in the United States, and young people trying to forge a new and brutal system of morality and pragmatism that would allow them to survive the aftermath. I mention that novel because his follow-up Chimpanzee is, while not a sequel in terms of plot and character, very much a sequel in terms of philosophy and worldview – the author describes Chimpanzee as the second in a ‘‘thematic cluster’’ of three books begun with Noise, to conclude with the forthcoming Totem.
The milieu of Chimpanzee is an American city in the midst of the ‘‘New Depression,’’ a near future of economic disaster with chronic unemployment and little in the way of hope or prospects. There hasn’t been a breakdown of governmental order like the one in Noise, though – in this case, the government is tightening its fist, using fear and violence to keep the citizenry in line. The ‘‘Homeland Renewal Project’’ looks, at first glance, like the Works Project Administration from the Great Depression, with citizens working on infrastructure projects… except those forced to work for Renewal are debtors or people who didn’t pay their parking tickets or taxes. They labor under the watchful eyes of armed guards, and their responsibilities include acting as ‘‘monitors’’ – spying on their fellow citizens in secret and reporting crimes and unpatriotic behavior, fostering an atmosphere of extreme social distrust. It’s a grim scene.
Narrator Benjamin Cade is (or was) a scholar, with advanced degrees in literature and literary theory, but when he lost his job, he couldn’t pay his student loans. As a result, he’s forced to work for Renewal… but things are even worse than that. One of the cleverest, and nastiest, extrapolations Bradley makes in this novel is the idea that one’s education can be repossessed if student loans aren’t paid off. As a result, Cade has to attend mandatory therapy, where his counselor uses drugs to gradually strip away everything Cade learned in his years of higher education: all his knowledge of literature, rhetoric, logic, semiotics, and propaganda, burying the knowledge behind potent mental blocks. Taking away his education inevitably damages some of his related memories, too, and since he met his wife Sireen in graduate school, the therapy impinges on his first memories of her, and the beginning of their relationship. (The refrain ‘‘it’s important to remember that I love my wife’’ takes on several different meanings as the book goes on.)
Cade feels his loss of status even more keenly because his wife still has her job as a math professor, and his best friend Dmitri still works at the college, too. They do their best to keep Cade’s spirits up, even as his sense of self erodes. In an attempt to fill his days and do something meaningful before his education dissipates, Cade starts teaching classes for free in the park, on rhetoric, and the manipulative qualities of language, and the slipperiness of meaning. He develops a following, with some calling him a new Socrates, a teacher for the people, and some of his students draw Cade into an underground barter and gift economy, frowned upon by the government, but rich in possibility, giving him some sense of purpose again.
The other major SFnal element here, beyond education repossession, is ‘‘chimping’’ – wearing special goggles that allow users to temporarily experience altered psychological and emotional states. Users can choose to experience paranoia, or OCD, or other disorders, and later, even experience the thought processes of other humans – couples can ‘‘chimp’’ the experiences of another couple that’s wildly in love, for example, inhabiting their mental state. A connection is gradually revealed between the technology that lets the government siphon off Cade’s memories and the process that lets users experience the memories and mindsets of others, and illicit, illegal chimping gives access to forbidden experiences and thought processes. Conspiracies swirl around Cade, with his bosses in Renewal, his students, associated revolutionaries, and even his loved ones working on their own projects, with Cade as a pawn or a linchpin in various plans, manipulated even as he struggles to hold on to his sense of self.
Bradley’s sophomore effort is just as ambitious as his debut, and his voice is more assured, his characters better delineated. Chimpanzee isn’t cheerful stuff, but there’s a revolutionary zeal, and a belief in the power of the mind to effect change in the world, that provides some light in this otherwise bleak dystopia. I’m excited to see what Totem brings.