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Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

ishmaelIshmael comes recommended by my father, and that’s enough for me.

It’s an environmental novel published in 1992. So, dated? Or prophetic? I’m afraid it stands firm today; we can debate whether it’s overly alarmist (ha) or overly optimistic (sigh), but I didn’t run across anything that dated it especially for me. The premise is: our narrator (who, I’m pretty sure, remains nameless) is a disillusioned 30-something who, as a teen, had looked for someone to guide his idealistic, revolutionary, 1970’s-style environmentalism, and come out disappointed and cynical. Now that it’s “too late”, he’s frustrated to find the following advertisement in the newspaper:

TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

(Is “newspaper” the term that dates this story?) Narrator responds jadedly, assuming this is a charlatan, a scammer; but still he goes to the address listed, because he has to satisfy his curiosity (and presumably because some part of him hopes that someone out there can really teach him how to save the world). In this anonymous retail space, he finds… a gorilla. A big, scary gorilla behind a glass wall; and on Narrator’s side of the wall, a chair. He eventually sits, and our gorilla – Ishmael – “speaks” telepathically to him. Ishmael relates his life story, and they begin discussing What’s Wrong With The World And What We Can Do About It.

Leaving aside the rather strange element of the telepathic and exceptionally well-read gorilla, the structure of this story is much like Sophie’s World, a novel I read pre-blog (thus no review here, sorry) and really, deeply loathed. It is credit to my faith in my father that I picked up Ishmael, knowing it was at all like that other. The structure I’m referring to is part of what I disliked about Sophie, although it works slightly better here: there is no plot, no action in the story, and no character development, because our characters don’t do anything. They form a didactic construction that allows Quinn, in ill-disguised fashion, to voice his own thoughts. If he were doing this in dialogue form, it would make a little more sense; but unfortunately the dialogue mostly consists of many paragraphs by one character, punctuated by the occasional “yes,” “true,” or “I don’t quite understand that part; can you tell me more?” from the other. Now, I liked what Quinn had to say, and I frankly liked the gorilla Ishmael, and so this framing element bothered me far less than it did with Sophie (shudder). But I still felt that it was unnecessary, distracting, and ill-concealed. I’d rather Quinn had just written a manifesto frankly stated as his own.

Quinn’s thesis in a nutshell is that our world is badly f*ed; humans have done it by behaving badly; and we need to change quickly if we hope to salvage the earth itself, its very deserving fellow occupants like butterflies, tigers, flowers and rocks, and any of ourselves. I find this thesis abundantly easy to follow. For decades we’ve known that we were badly screwing up this planet (unless you’re Big Oil and have found a way to put your head under the sand (to look for more oil) in which case you’re probably not reading Ishmael, or this blog). Actually I found the third part of the thesis – that we need to hurry up and change so that we can save the world – hardest to follow, because I think things are worse off than Quinn paints them to be. Of course, I’m writing this more than 20 years later, so I’ll give him a pass there.

That said, the friendly gorilla and the simply stated philosophical approach that he shares with our Narrator make an accessible argument. I could see this being a good entry-level discussion piece – or a jumping-off point for further discussion in a reading group or classroom setting. Ishmael is likeable, and the philosophy is mostly sound (at least until the part about how we can change; I am less hopeful than Ishmael is), and readable.

I am not sorry I read this. But I like Derrick Jensen’s Endgame better, even though it doesn’t have as happy an ending. More on that book to come.


Rating: 5 sessions.

3 Responses

  1. […] the same spirit in which we both read Endgame and Ishmael, Pops has recently read David Guterson’s The Other, and I have some snippets of his thoughts […]

  2. […] I was terribly bothered by that issue in Sophie’s World, and a little bothered by it in Ishmael, but there is no trace of it here. As I wrote above, Dellarobia is very, very real. Instead, this […]

  3. […] his academic analysis by observing this is not “another Moby Dick. Jack Burns is no Ishmael [not Quinn’s, Melville’s!] and to load that poor vernacular cowboy with such a heavy philosophical burden […]

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