By Sara Gruen
(Mild spoilers ahead)
Ah, the airport thriller. There's nothing quite like a novel about a plucky journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot while his/her personal and professional life is crumbling all around. These sorts of books are usually described as "gripping," a "wild ride" or "compelling." Not that there's anything wrong with airport thrillers, mind you. I've been known to be compelled into the grip of a wild ride from time to time, but I was a bit surprised to find that Sara Gruen, the author of Water For Elephants, had written one. And as it turns out, it's better than most.
To be frank, I was ready to hate this book after the first 100 pages. It all seemed too absurd. Too Cathy Lamb. The novel centers on a troupe of highly intelligent bonobos living in a research lab who are able to use sign language to communicate with humans. Their closest human friend is a woman named Isabel. Isabel is socially awkward and feels more at home with the bonobos than she does with other humans. Her fiancé was recently put in charge of the research and is immediately introduced as a creepy slime ball who has cheated on her with Isabel's only other friend: a hip, vegan, Lisbeth Salander-esque character named Celia.
Meanwhile, John, a down on his luck journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer has been working on an article about the lab for an on-going piece about great apes, though his partner, an unscrupulous tiger woman aptly named Cat has been scooping his story from underneath him. John's wife, Amanda, is a struggling writer with the world's most annoying mother has been given a chance to write a television series in Hollywood with a man she has met on the Internet. Given Amanda's recent struggles with depression, this opportunity coupled with John's recent troubles with his job, send their marriage into a tailspin. Will it survive? Read on!
All this is trouble enough, but a terrorist explosion rocks the lab and severely injures Isabel. In the aftermath, Isabel is left to mend, John is fired from the Inquirer and the lab is closed down. Somehow, the bonobos are sold to a known pornographer and installed in a house with cameras in every room where they become the unwilling stars in America's new hit reality TV show, Ape House.
Of course all of this seems so improbably stupid that you'd keep reading, too. And it's not that the book gets any less stupid. It's not Water For Elephants if that's what you are thinking. But Gruen does handle the airport thriller genre with a certain flare and depth that others in the field often lack and I ended up liking the book in the end (though not loving it). There were more than a few times when I was sure I had the plot figured only to have Gruen surprise me with a neat little twist. And that's all anyone should really ask of an airport thriller. Good plot, surprises and twists. So I'm not complaining. It's a solid read and I doubt very many people will throw it away in disgust. If you do, you probably are not a hit at parties, either.
But the novel does have a certain degree of social import that deserves mention. Among many other things, Gruen has a lot to say on the vulgarity of our celebrity-obsessed culture and reality television. A solid half of the novel delves into the sleazy side of reality television with its unscrupulous creators. One could almost smell the mustache wax secreting from the bad guy while he wrung his hands in evil glee at the thought of making millions off this "stupid little monkeys." Why is could have been Donald Trump himself! Naturally, the show becomes a hit and a nationwide success. In that respect, Ape House reminded me a lot of Ben Elton's novel Dead Famous.
Certainly there is a lot to say about our TMZ unfused lives and the saturation of our televisions with such reality nonsense as Survivor, The Bachelor, Big Brother etc... These shows are the cultural equivalent of Big Macs and Twinkies. Indeed, we should spend more time worrying about our cultural diet and what out viewing habits are doing to the collective intelligence of our society, or some such social science-speak. And juxtaposing this obsession with "reality" and celebrity by way of intelligent apes (who continuously display more maturity than the humans in the book) is an ingeniously sly backhand against society as a whole. But my question to Sara Gruen is: Aren't you preaching to the choir, sister?
I mean, anyone who is reading your novels (or, sadly, reading at all) is more than likely already well aware of the degrading nature of celebrity gossip and reality television. The sorts of people that read Sara Gruen books are already the sorts of people who probably don't waste their time surfing Perez Hilton or watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians. They're probably eager to pick up the next Tom Robbins (or whoever...) novel on their bookshelf and forego the antics of overly-tanned, tribal-tattooed 20-somethings cavorting in hot tubs and arguing over who used all the ketchup in the fridge.
Readers are, by nature, cultural vegetarians. They are picky about their pop culture due to the time and effort they invest in their medium of choice. For a reader it's not simply a matter of flicking on the show, mid-episode and picking the themes up mid-sentence. Reading requires time and patience and readers become adept at protecting those commodities. Perhaps this is why readers tend to shun television. It has always been the cultural junk food. Besides, airport thrillers are the reader's equivalent to junk food (though I like to equate them to decadent desserts). They are, along with Young Adult fiction and books about zombies (or vampires) the reader's guilty pleasure. A refreshing slice of sweetness after the heftier meals of which we are accustomed...
Riiiiiiight..... Anyway, for fear of coming across as a snob, I am well aware that I am speaking in gross generalities (and tasty metaphors), but I think I'm getting my point across.
I do admire Gruen's verve in detailing the unfortunate cultural phenomenon that is the cult of celebrity. Sure, Ape House tackles other issues such as animal rights, the absurdity of extreme groups (both right and left) and the decline of print media to name a few. And one shouldn't lose sight of the fact that it is, after all, just a story. But I couldn't help ponder Gruen's motivation for even bothering with the world of reality television. While I agree with Sara Gruen about everything she says on the subject of reality television and celebrity culture, I can't imagine that many of her readers came to an epiphany about the subject while reading this. Explaining the absurdity of reality television and celebrity culture to an audience of readers is like explaining snow to an Inuit. Totally unnecessary.
But I digress.
OK, perhaps I'm looking too far into an airport thriller for something to write. Perhaps none of this really needs to be said. Perhaps I should just shut my yap and enjoy this gripping, wild ride.