Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"What She Read" Review: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore... Kissing Cousin Holds A Mirror Up To Nature

And it's way more than a mouthful from a chimp with attitude.

The premise:  Bruno the chimpanzee, born and raised in zoos and a primate communication lab in Chicago, rises in the human world due to his particular gift for interacting with humans via speech.  After a long and reasonably happy period living freely out in the wide world, he commits murder and is then confined to a center somewhat like the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Georgia.  With plenty of time on his hands, Bruno decides to dictate his memoirs to amanuensis Gwen, hence the novel.

So you must go with the premise from the get-go or let the whole book go.  Here’s a chimpanzee who can walk and talk and think deep thoughts with a genius-range vocabulary peppered with literary and semiotic allusions, and who’s murdered someone yet now lives a life of relative ease, despite his continuing captivity.  He’s dictating his memoirs, because the physical act of writing is about the only human skill he hasn’t mastered.  If you can accept all that and you relish the ramblingly intricate philosophical rant powered by the mystery of not “Who done it?” but “Who it done to and how?”, AND you’ve got plenty of time to immerse yourself in a challenging but often rewarding novel, you might just want to pick up a copy of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.

And if, like me, you’ve nurtured a lifelong fascination with the great apes, their intelligence, their psychology, their communication, and their social structures, especially as they provided insight into humans, then you’ll find Bruno not just challenging but fascinating.  He’s brilliantly askew for sure, and an unrepentant narcissist, and in his exuberance to use his powers of description he can tend to ramble through sometimes excruciatingly minute details of his surroundings, but, all in all, Bruno’s also an unforgettable character. 

And the book’s a novel you’re quite likely to remember your whole life, not simply on account of the bravado it takes for a first-time novelist to offer up such an unusual first person narrator or on account of the sex scenes that are at times quite unsettling, but also considering the moxie of his publishers (the Twelve imprint of Hatchette Books) in taking a chance on such an unlikely tale.  And if at times Benjamin Hale prevails upon our patience and stretches our credulity a tad too much, the overreach seems engendered by enthusiasm for the encyclopedic and the piling upon of small noticings that eventually agglomerate into a lifetime of the mind (think Infinite Jest or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius rather than some thin but hefty potboiler).

Sometimes a close comparison is the most illuminative.  This appears to be one aspect of Benjamin Hale 's purpose in offering up this great ape's memoirs. So the first chimpanzee to speak, read, act, paint, and live a life in almost all ways human tells us his life story while unmasking the animal nature beneath our thin human veneer of civility.  And he celebrates the manifold glories of the arts and culture and literature in this rambling rant of a novel.

What’ll I Do?
1.  Go back to my favorite chimp-related research and protection groups, esp. the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensberg and of course the Jane Goodall Institute to see how I can help preserve great apes in the wild.  From there, I will take at least one step to contribute to their well being.  Join me?

A caution:  If you are squeamish at all about sexual content, then this book might not be for you.  Hale and Bruno explore all aspects of what it means to be human, and in graphic detail at times.

p.s. Hale also provides an exhortation to help save wild primates, especially great apes, in the afterward to the early review copy I received.  My hope is that it finds a more prominent position in the hardback, e-, and eventual paperback copies of this work, as it would be a shame to use a chimp – even a virtual one – for one’s own literary and financial purposes, and then leave it at that.  I certainly want to believe that this young author will prevail upon his publishers and reading audience to do some good for our nearest relatives.


llevinso said...

This actually sounds very interesting. I've never heard of it before. However I'm not SURE I could just go with it. Might be tricky...

Laurie said...

Tricky it is, as the novel requires not only a concerted and sustained suspension of disbelief, but a willlingness to endure quite uncomfortable subject matter in places. Nonetheless, I felt that the time invested in this hefty tome pushed my thinking to places it wouldn't ordinarily tread, so I wound up feeling it was time well spent.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...