I suspect that Me Cheeta is the most unconventional book to make the Booker longlist this year. Ostensibly a memoir by Cheeta, the chimpanzee from the Tarzan films, the book is really a parody of the Hollywood tell-all. “Cheeta” writes of his discovery, his experiences on the Tarzan sets, and his many encounters with Hollywood stars. So it’s a book with a gimmick. If you aren’t going to buy into the gimmick, there’s no point reading it.
I was willing to go along with the gimmick. I love 1930s and 1940s film, so I was curious as to how the author would depict the period. I also wondered whether Cheeta would be depicted as a witness to film history describing things accurately and how Cheeta’s chimpness would influence his perspective.
It becomes clear early on that Cheeta’s perspective is more important than actual accuracy. As a chimp, Cheeta has no discretion, and he describes drug use and sex acts with a bluntness that you’re unlikely to find in the typical tell-all memoir. But Cheeta also brings a weird upside-down morality to these descriptions because his understanding of appropriate behavior is so different. He doesn’t really come across as prurient; he’s a chimp. However, I couldn’t help but think of the author behind the chimp, and how, for the actual author, James Lever, the chimp narrator could simply be an excuse for saying things that simply aren’t said about real people. (And many of which I’m guessing are entirely made up.)
My own reservations about the actual author aside, Cheeta’ s upside-down perspective does bring some moments of great cleverness to the book. For example, Cheeta sees the confinement that he and his fellow animal performers are placed in as “rehabilitation” where they can recover from the trauma of jungle life. He doesn’t blame humans for not realizing that the rehab sometimes goes on too long. And he claims to be writing this memoir to raise funds for the “No Reel Apes” campaign, but then he makes frequent not-at-all-subtle digs at the movement to replace animal actors with CGI animals. (Cheeta, it should be said, is never, ever subtle.)
But the core of the book is the name-dropping Hollywood tale. The descriptions of the Tarzan films are sometimes hilarious. Cheeta understands that they are making movies, but he doesn’t exactly understand about acting, scripts, and so on. For Cheeta, the films are dreams and the actors are dreamers, committing their dreams to film so that others can enjoy them. Cheeta sees Jane as the villain of the films, always trying to make the jungle and the “dreams” into something they aren’t meant to be. Here’s Cheeta’s reaction to Jane’s appearance on the set with a bouquet of flowers, shortly after Cheeta has found the baby who will become “Boy”:
Why we needed flowers when we lived in a forest I can’t tell you. Now there’d be no flowers in the place she’d got them from. Maybe the next time we were down there I could take these ones back, brighten the place up a bit! Fucking idiot! Marriage to Farrow had finally extinguished any last flicker of fun in her—Jane was now about as effervescent as a gin and tonic left all winter in a shuttered summerhouse. Her hemline was down half a foot; her hair had become anti-erotically complex, and her eyes . . . her eyes were tunnels. They saw the baby and nothing else. She went white with triumph. You see—and I don’t think there’s any way I can avoid the subject—Tarzan wouldn’t give her a child. And for all that Jane had designed off-putting twin beds for them in the zebra-hide-and-leopard-skin-themed master bedroom, it was a child she craved.
I laughed out loud several times at passages like this one. I also got a lot of chuckles out of Cheeta’s obsessive resentment of Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Rooney, and the looming specter of his rivalry with Esther Williams. (The chapter detailing their rivalry supposedly had to be removed for legal reasons.)
However, like so many books that are based on a gimmick, the gimmick wears thin after a while. Cheeta’s tirades get repetitive, and his oaths of ever-lasting love of Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan himself, get old. The book is a quick read, but the last third felt like too much of a good thing. I suppose it’s too much to ask for character development in a chimp, but that’s what I wanted. The Cheeta of this book wore out his welcome with me eventually.