Darrin Bradley: Five Things I Learned Writing Chimpanzee
Unemployment has ravaged the U.S. economy. One of those struggling is Benjamin Cade, an expert in cognition and abstract literature. Without income, he joins the millions defaulting on their loans—in his case, the money he borrowed to finance his degrees. Using advances in cognitive science and chemical therapy, Ben’s debtors can reclaim their property—his education. The government calls the process “Repossession Therapy,” and it is administered by the Homeland Renewal Project.
But Ben has no intention of losing his mind without a fight, so he begins teaching in a municipal park, distributing his knowledge before it’s gone in a race against ignorance. And somewhere in Ben’s confusing takedown, Chimpanzee arrives. Its iconography appears spray-painted and wheat-pasted around town. Young people in rubber chimpanzee masks start massive protests. As Ben slowly loses himself, the Chimpanzee movement seems to grow. And when Homeland Security takes an interest, Ben finds himself at the center of a storm that may not even be real. What is Chimpanzee? Who created it? What does it want?
And is there even enough of Ben left to find out?
1) Repossessing an education isn’t as science fictional as you’d think.
One of the key premises in Chimpanzee is that you can have your education repossessed. It’s not as inelegant as men with bats showing up to take back your Prius in the middle of the night–it involves a bit more science, some therapy, and a whole bunch of drugs–but still. The economy has gone so bad in Chimpanzee that taking back someone’s education becomes profitable–you can sell their memories on the black market, or Pharma companies will buy them for their never-ending R&D. With everybody unemployed, all those degrees have lost their competitive, employing edge. Taking a few back might just help out some folks at the top of the ladder.
But the idea isn’t as far-flung as you’d think–or as I thought. Researchers at the University of California in San Diego have successfully erased and re-created memories in genetically modified rats]. Using pulses of light, no less. It’s just a coincidence that I tossed around so many light metaphors in the book, but we can pretend that I was forecasting this process all along.
2) Asheville, N.C. makes a great Ground Zero for the New Depression.
I began writing Chimpanzee in 2009, just before the release of my first book, Noise. That first book was largely influenced by all the time I’d spent living and growing up in Texas, but by 2009, I was living in Asheville, N.C., where I taught at a couple of different universities in the region. Asheville survived some hard times of its own after the Civil War, so it made a great backdrop for a story about the New Depression. Its compact downtown, walkable cultural districts, and re-purposed industrial depots are not only picturesque, they’d also make for great stomping grounds should the shit hit the fan. Asheville’s up in the Blue Ridge mountains, so you won’t get hordes of people looking for food or work, it gets plenty of fresh water from the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers, and it’s decidedly a beer-loving arts city . . . so you can stay drunk and entertained through the hard times. The city in Chimpanzee isn’t a direct copy of Asheville, but it’s close enough to give you an idea what to expect.
3) When you write what you know, it writes back . . .
Writing gurus will tell you to write what you know. And that’s largely a good idea–I do it in my own work all the time, ripping off my own memories and experiences for the sake of my characters. But what they don’t tell you is that depending on what you write that shit can get real. Chimpanzee is about the cognitive disassembly of a man who has fallen prey to the collapse of the U.S. economy. Without work, he can’t pay his loans, which makes him subject to Repossession Therapy and mandatory public service in the Homeland Renewal Project. For a guy who spent his life studying theories of the mind and attempting to understand the very nature of art, losing his ability to fully reason is tantamount to losing any reason to even exist. I studied the same courses as my character Ben–earned the same degrees and worked the same jobs. I even shared some of the experiences he remembers with his wife with my own in the real world.
So when you build yourself a fictional simulacrum, be careful how much time you spending thinking about taking it apart. After all l’appel du vide, and all that. You’re better off writing yourself a happy and fulfilling life as a basket weaver in the Caribbean.
4) Open, public education isn’t anything new . . .
I thought I was pretty clever when I decided to let Ben create a free, open-air university in Chimpanzee. After all, he didn’t have anything better to do. They were repossessing his education, so he might as well give it away to as many people as he could before he fully reverted to something more . . . well, simian. I was even delighted to watch the Occupy movement spring up in 2011–I was working as the administrative editor of Studies in the Novel on the campus of the University of North Texas, and I used to take breaks from collating literary criticism to stand at the window and watch the Denton Occupy chapter gather in groups to teach each other about economics, politics, footbag (they needed some breaks, after all) . . . whatever they were interested in. It told me that there was some honesty to my chimpanzee movement in the novel.
But then I learned that while I was patting myself on the back, there were others in the world doing the same thing, and to much more meaningful effect. Like Rajesh Kumar Sharma, who opened a school under a bridge in New Delhi to teach the city’s poorest children]. His school is cooler than mine.
5) Neither are subversive U.S. economies . . .
While I’m outing myself for being Not That Clever, I might as well point out that the subversive economy in Chimpanzee isn’t all that revolutionary either. See, in the book, if you’re out of money, you can trade goods and services for an underground currency: SHAREs. You can swap these with other folks who’ve bought into the SHARE registry, circumventing the useless American dollar and avoiding the tax man (for a while, at least). The idea seemed pretty cool to me, and it made sense, especially given the Hard Times we all started going through in 2008, which haunted the country all throughout the drafting of the book.
And it was a good idea. Especially to the people who were actually creating and using their own currencies.] The next time you’re dreaming up ideas to add content and depth to your stories, be sure to go track down some real-world analogs. Necessity is the mother of invention, so save yourself some brain cells and go see what the people in the trenches are already doing.
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Darin holds a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. in English Literature and Theory. He has taught courses on writing and literature at several universities and has served in a variety of editorial capacities at a number of independent presses and journals. He lives in Texas with his wife, where he dreams of empty places. Chimpanzee is his second novel.
Darin Bradley: Website