Finding Ishmael

Dec. 18, 2003, midnight | By Josh Gottlieb-Miller | 20 years, 5 months ago

Propaganda has never been so true. That's not a bad thing, to call Daniel Quinn's Ishmael propaganda, as it is still accurate and insightful and powerful. It might even be considered a compliment, because Quinn is a skilled propagandist in that he, more urgently perhaps than any current novelist, changes people's minds.

Turner Tomorrow Award winning Ishmael is an odd book, not so much confined by genre as a thriller or comedy would be (unless you consider the potential end of the world funny), but rather is more social statement or manifesto. Ishmael is very important reading though: Quinn identifies a number of pressing issues for culture, civilization and the environment. Quinn's work has merit, for the problems he acknowledges affect all of humanity.

Unfortunately, Quinn doesn't do the most beautiful job explaining these problems (and likewise his solutions). Quinn ignores most popular writing tenets, making half-hearted stabs at character development and plot. The fact that the omnipresent narrator remains unnamed throughout the book is telling. Ishmael works as educational text, looking to inform humanity of culture's failures and help steer humanity to another option, a kind of escape plan. Unfortunately, Quinn fails at developing this better option, and the reader is left with a depressing but highly necessary read.

Ishmael centers around the unnamed narrator, who's been looking for a teacher for years when he notices an ad in the local paper by a teacher looking for a student. Soon discovers the teacher to be a large, learned gorilla (and former circus freak) who communicates through telepathy. How he is able to do this is not described, but instead accepted and ignored as Ishmael rapidly continues educating the narrator and the reader. To be fair, the narrator's existence is little more than a device that allows Quinn to disseminate his ideas as to humanity's future. When Quinn attempts to give the narrator real traits or character development it appears awkward and contrived, fortunately he does not try this often. The gorilla Ishmael's back-story is similarly glossed over, and wisely, the mechanism that enables his self-awareness is not creative. A late plot twist involving a disappearance by Ishmael doesn't work either. Ishmael's charm instead rests in Quinn's urgent teachings and warnings. Quinn's conflict exists not in fiction but in a very real and possible future. And Quinn's future is a scary, scary thing.

Quinn takes the reader through the history of man, touching on culture, overpopulation, the environment, the bible and civilization in general. Though not gripping in suspense, Quinn does a nice job of making Ishmael a nice read, and it is definitely worth it, giving the nature of the problems it deals with: problems we tend to ignore in common discourse, because of their weight and density.

Ishmael is $20.00 and can be bought here.

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