The narrator throws his newspaper out in a huff, but after a few minutes, rescues it from the trash bin. He's upset by an advertisement placed by a teacher looking for a student interested in saving the world. Mostly, he's annoyed because he spent years of his idealistic youth looking for such a teacher. Though certain the advertisement is a scam, the narrator goes to the address indicated in the advertisement.
He ends up at a nondescript office building and enters a large, nearly empty office. Once inside, he explores and finds a darkened window to an adjoining room; in the room is a gorilla. Stunned, the narrator is uncertain what to do until a voice in his head tells him to sit down and relax so he's better able to listen. Quickly, the narrator realizes the gorilla is communicating with him telepathically. The narrator sits down, and the gorilla tells him about his background.
The gorilla, which the reader later learns is named Ishmael, was taken from the jungles of West Africa to be kept in a zoo in the United States. During the Depression, the zoo sold him to a traveling circus, where he lived for several years. During that time, he realized he was called Goliath and spent his time in captivity pondering the question: why? Why is life like this, so boring and distasteful?
One day, a man shows up and tells him he is not Goliath, which shakes his world; he no longer feels like an individual. The man, Walter Sokolow, purchases Ishmael and moves him to a gazebo on his large estate. On their first visit together, the man tells Ishmael he is Ishmael, making the gorilla feel like he has a self.
Mr. Sokolow is Jewish and had recently learned his family was killed in the Holocaust, so he spends some time sharing his grief with Ishmael, assuming the beast can't understand him. But Ishmael gently touches the man's hand. Mr. Sokolow tries to teach Ishmael to speak, but the process frustrates them both. Finally, Ishmael concentrates on sending his thoughts to the man and they realize they can communicate telepathically. Mr. Sokolow becomes Ishmael's teacher and companion, and through his friendship with Ishmael, recovers from his grief, marries, and even has a daughter, whom he names Rachel.
In these introductory sections, Quinn begins to explore the novel's key themes: the desire to save the world; what it means to be a person or have a "self"; and the question of why things are the way they are, which is the central question that propels the novel forward.
First, the reader learns quickly that the narrator's early ambition in life was to save the world. The narrator claims this ambition was born out of his tangential exposure to the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, but that it was snuffed out of him through the process of becoming an adult. Through the use of the narrator's passion and his abandoned pursuit of that passion, Quinn invites the reader to identify with the narrator. By not providing the narrator with a name and by constructing the novel in first person, the reader closely aligns himself with the narrator and can sympathize with the problematic feeling of giving up one's youthful dreams. Through the discovery of a teacher, the narrator realigns himself with his dreams, and the reader latches on for the ride by reading the tale of this meeting.
Second, Quinn engages the theme of personhood by making one of the main characters a gorilla named Ishmael. First, Ishmael's personhood is established in several ways. The first way Ishmael gains personhood is through captivity; it is there that he begins to question his life and gains a thoughtfulness that wild animals would not gain, due to their inherently more interesting lifestyles. Second, by being both named and renamed, Ishmael gains a stronger sense of himself as an individual. He is not the giant enemy Goliath, defeated by David in the biblical myth, but rather Ishmael, the cast-off son of Abraham. Quinn's use of biblical allusions for Ishmael's names structure the relationship he has with humans. While imprisoned, he's a goliath, an unknown monster. Once he's able to communicate with humans and share their knowledge, he is like a distant relative, as the offspring of Ishmael are to the offspring of Isaac in the Bible.
Finally, the driving question behind the novel is: why are things the way they are? This question is first presented by Ishmael in his memories of life in the zoo. He claims that all animals gain a capacity for thought while in captivity, having little else to do. For Ishmael, whose intelligence is similar to a human's, he is able to ponder this question in more depth and think of it in terms of the larger socio-cultural structures he reads about under Mr. Sokolow's guidance. The reader should keep this question in mind because it is the key question that structures the novel's development.