Back to the Future

Houston novelist Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael—the basis of the new film Instinct—calls for a return to primitive ways. But we get to keep our modern pleasures.

ALTHOUGH HE LIVES IN HOUSTON NOW, Daniel Quinn was coming to Austin for a dentist’s appointment and suggested that we meet at Sardine Rouge, a new French restaurant on Sixth Street. That choice might surprise Quinn’s fans. Over the past decade, in half a dozen books that include the best-selling 1992 novel Ishmael—the basis for the recently released (and critically panned) film Instinct, with Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding, Jr.—Quinn has mounted a frontal assault on Western civilization and modern culture. He has done nothing less than call on us to reject our competitive, planet-consuming ways and return to the tribal ways of our primitive ancestors. The selection of a fancy French restaurant might seem out of character, but people are always getting Daniel Quinn wrong.

They write to me and say, ‘I want to change the world; what should I give up?’” he says as he settles into a corner booth, scoffing at the notion that his ideas for fixing our culture might involve any austere rejection of its pleasures. “Well, I am not asking them to give up anything. That’s not how you change the world.”

With glasses and a white beard, the 64-year-old Quinn has a bit of the cleric about him, and indeed he received a Jesuit education growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, and was a postulant in the Trappist order as a young man, studying with renowned author Thomas Merton. Quinn leavens the piety, though, with an impish twinkle, like a Santa in a Playboy cartoon. His wife, Rennie, who has joined us, is taller and slim, a Modigliani with close-cropped hair and long earrings. The Quinns have been together for a long time, and it shows in the way they finish each other’s sentences and react as one to any perceived misstatement. He orders a single-malt Scotch, neat, to go with his pheasant, while she has a Stoli with her lobster bisque.

The pheasant days began for the Quinns in 1991. Five years earlier Daniel and Rennie had moved to Austin from Madrid, New Mexico, where they ran a regional newspaper, and he had begun to wonder if the book he’d spent eight years on, the statement of his personal philosophy that would take modern civilization apart at the seams, would ever be published. Quinn believed that there was something terribly wrong with our culture’s relationship to the natural world, something that would lead to catastrophe before long; moreover, he thought he could pinpoint the origin of this imbalance and even show how to solve it. It was the agricultural revolution in 8000 B.C., Quinn felt, that got us off track, creating land-hungry, hierarchical societies—which he calls Takers—that overwhelmed the ecologically healthy hunter-gatherer cultures, or Leavers. This Taker culture, which took over the world and produced modern civilization, doesn’t see man as part of nature but rather as separate from and superior to the rest of creation. We will have to kill off our own culture, Quinn concluded, destroy our myths of man’s superiority, if we are to survive.

Quinn sensed that he was onto a powerful idea, but the literary alchemy for expressing it continued to elude him. More than a decade of writing and seven completely different versions of didactic nonfiction had produced nothing but rejection slips.

I think the darkest time was when I came home to find that he’d thrown out a thousand pages of writing,” Rennie says. Daniel shrugs and says, “Simply a writer’s discipline to discard failed drafts. You can’t have your ex-wife living in the garage, just in case.”

Then Rennie, who was supporting them by working as an editor for an educational publisher, happened to see an announcement for the Turner Tomorrow Awards, to be given by media mogul Ted Turner. The $500,000 first prize would go to the best novel containing positive solutions for global problems. “I’d been saying, ‘Why don’t you try your book as a novel?’” Rennie recalls. “The Turner prize convinced him to do it.”

The fictional twist Quinn came up with was Ishmael, a superintelligent, telepathic gorilla that stands in for the author and teaches his philosophy of life to a nameless, down-and-out writer-narrator. Their dialogue includes some lines that seem aimed right at the prize and must have warmed the cockles of Turner’s optimistic heart: “ This is what we need,” the narrator concludes near the end of the book. “Not just stopping things. Not just less of things. People need something positive to work for.” The gorilla replies telepathically, “I think what you’re groping for is that people need more than to be scolded… . They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them.” Against all odds, the long shot came in: Out of 2,500 entries, Ishmael, a speculative work of fiction by an unknown author, won the literary lottery, the largest book prize ever given.

The next day, though, writers William Styron and Peter Matthiessen, two of the Turner prize’s nine prestigious judges, protested Quinn’s selection, saying they hadn’t intended to give the entire prize to him and implying that the book wasn’t deserving. It was “a real Cinderella story,” Quinn told Newsweek at the time, “complete with the stepsisters howling at the side.” Another judge, Ray Bradbury, came to Quinn’s defense, calling Ishmael “a lovely book.” Turner wanted one winner, and Ishmael was it. The book, co-published by Turner and Bantam, went on to sell more than 300,000 copies and is now in its twenty-first printing.

The fuss was understandable. As a novel, Ishmael has neither memorable characters—halfhearted attempts to describe the gorilla’s “crinkled” brow and “huge, meaty aroma” don’t add up to much—nor a compelling plot. In fact, Ishmael hardly qualifies as a novel at all. “The only model I see is the dialogues of Plato,” Quinn says, ordering another Scotch. “In those, the characters are ideas, and the relation of the ideas to each other is the story.”

Ishmael follows in the literary tradition of the preachy pseudo-novel—of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle

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