Episode 25 – Novel of the Apes

Note: This is the 7/26/22 entry of my free weekly newsletter. You can sign up here: https://apple6.aweb.page/p/de4ee963-cd8d-4ced-9975-e13965236a7d 

I have always loved reading fiction, and in recent years I have read quite a few novels dealing in some way with climate change, ecological issues, and/or our relationship with other animals. Standouts include Richard Powers’ ode to forests The OverstoryMatt Bell’s richly creative Appleseed, and Charlotte McConaghy’s achingly beautiful Migrations. The book I focused on in today’s episode might not quite reach those heights in terms of sheer quality, but it tries something ambitious that none of those books fully attempt: entire chapters come from the perspective of a nonhuman animal. Specifically, a chimpanzee–not a talking chimpanzee like Planet of the Apes, but a chimpanzee as they exist in our world–or as close to it as author T.C.Boyle is able to come.

This is a solo episode, and I talk about why that novel–Talk To Me–has stuck with me since it came out last year. Along the way, I explore whether learning to love chimpanzees can help break down the human/animal divide, and how Boyle’s portrayal of Sam the chimpanzee differs from other novels about animals. I also draw on Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse to argue for the importance of giving voice to nonhuman characters in fiction, and the unique role stories are able to play. It’s also the 25th episode–can’t believe it!


Speaking of Ghosh, I also highly recommend reading this essay “Brutes”— I quote from it in the episode but it is essential to understanding why I think it’s important to have a chimp as the main character in a literary fiction novel. It’s also where this podcast got its name:

My writing: I have something else to share besides a podcast — last week I was published in Sierra, the magazine of the Sierra Club, on the need to reduce flight demand in aviation. I know some of you have already listened to my episode on the topic, but this article was less about my personal story and instead covers a recent report and gets a bit more specific and quantitative about why technology is not enough to sufficiently reduce aviation emissions. Check it out!

Over the next few months, I will be working on a longer piece for them about the future of long-distance transportation, from new flight technologies to better trains to shifting social paradigms around vacation and work. I would love to hear about any thoughts or resources any of you might have on the subject.

Book Club: one more week until The Ministry for the Future! I am very excited – I mentioned standout eco-fiction earlier, but Robinson’s body of work is probably my favorite. For those who finished early, I have been slowly making my way through this compendium of responses to the book in crooked timber (author Kim Stanley Robinson then responded to the responses): https://crookedtimber.org/2021/05/03/the-ministry-for-the-future-seminar/

If you want to join us next month, our book will be As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker. Usually these meetings are the last Tuesday of the month but in August it will be August 23, the penultimate Tuesday. Mark your calendars for 5:30 Pacific/8:30 Eastern! And let me know if you are planning to attend either of these.

And of course, Patreon subscribers have one more week to vote for our September novel.

The best thing I read all week: I probably read better things, but the most essential might be Robinson Meyer on Joe Manchin’s reported decision to withdraw support for any near-term climate legislation. I really can’t stand Manchin, and it’s dark how incapable Congress is of acting on climate. Meyer helpfully and depressingly lays out the stakes. 



P.S. If you haven’t already filled out my survey, I’d appreciate feedback on the podcast so far! 

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