My Thoughts on Benjamin Hale, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
Title:The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
Author: Benjamin Hale
Genre: Literary Fiction
Where I got it: The publisher for review
Challenges: Chunkster Challenge
I've already mentioned a number of times on this blog that I really liked this book. I did. I really liked it. But, I'm going to begin on a different note, because I want to acknowledge that not everyone would like this book, and I know that I have a variety of readers (hi mom). So, if you know that you would be incredibly uncomfortable (which you are supposed to be) reading about a chimpanzee in a sexual relationship with a human woman, or if you don't read books with graphic sexual content or profanity, then this probably isn't the book for you.
That said, I highly recommend this book for any reader looking for something that feels really fresh, if a bit weird and often uncomfortable. There were moments where I had to stop reading this book, and others when I couldn't stop. That to me, means that the book is good. The story is Bruno Littlemore's, a chimp removed from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago to be the subject of a series of language experiments. Bruno, it turns out, has quite the proclivity for language, which we as readers know from the start as we read the manuscript of his dictation telling his life story. He begins writing as an imprisoned man, much like Humbert Humbert, the protagonist/pervert in Nabokov's, Lolita. This is one of the many recurring literary antecedents that lie beneath the fabric of this narrative. These worthy predecesors also include Shakespeare (especially The Tempest), Kafka's monkey story, "A Report to the Academy," and Dostoyevsky. There is much in common here with a Shakespearean, or a Russian tragedy.
Soon after arriving at the University of Chicago, Bruno begins to fall in love with a researcher in the lab, Lydia, which we also know from the beginning of the book, and they eventually begin a relationship. Lydia helps Bruno "become human," which is the focus of most of his journey. Bruno, as a narrator, is, like Humbert, unreliable; he is also erudite and verbose. There are passages of description that drag on, but only serve to build the character of Bruno as one who likes to quantify, making him somewhat of a scientist himself. I won't divulge much more of the plot, because I wouldn't want to spoil it, although the reader knows all the good stuff from the beginning, including the fact that Bruno eventually becomes a murderer.
Hale seems to have put everything in this book, and he shows that he is an adept thinker as well as an adept storyteller. I personally started to fall in love with the narrative in the first section as Bruno meditates on language and linguistics and our human relationships with words. These passages to me, are remarkably developed and thoughtful, eschewing some of the postmodern claims for language's meaninglessness as well as taking a few jabs at Noam Chomsky's fervent belief that language is essentially a human trait. But what results are beautiful passages of prose, too many to quote here, that I was marking away in my book. Here is one that is awfully lovely:
But when an infant gazes into his mother's eyes and speaks a first word-- even if he has no clue what it "means" -- that is language. The child's first word is not a symbol. It is not a representation, it is not a sign impregnated with abstract meaning, it is not a signifier and not a semiote. It is not a thin coating of signification painted over the surface of an a priori extant concept, suddenly revealing its definition like the act of throwing a sheet over something invisible. It is not a representation. Before a word becomes any of these things, ti is simply an act. It is not a naming of the world, but rather the world's creation.Just in the one passage, Hale provides a wealth of theoretical fodder and also a strikingly emotional description of the relationship between a mother and a child and the loving act of bestowing language as reciprocal. Hale is interested in breaking down our thinking about language, in the service of breaking down many of our modes of binary thinking. For instance, in another passage, Bruno asks why love cannot be a part of science. Even later he claims that science and life and theater are one.
And this is the theme that struck me in the end. Bruno is an "other," who is incapable, despite his romantic longings, of fitting into human society. And yet, he constantly asks the reader to question: "Why not?" There is a striking scene late in the novel when Bruno goes to the zoo to look in on his family, from the other side of the glass that surrounds their enclosure. The whole scene is funny and clever and smart, but what stayed with me after reading it was a moment of interaction between a human baby and a chimp baby, gazing at one another through the glass. And, of course, the scene is not only about chimps and humans, but about all the artificial lines we draw, all of the lines that -- when we cross them -- make us uncomfortable.
The book is a love affair with language, which is something that I like to say about books that I like. Hale has given Bruno a gift by allowing him to speak and to tell his story: a gift not always given to a figure on the margins, like this liminal, uncanny chimp/human. I would also say that he has given the reader a gift as well, not only of his adept, fresh writing, but of his ideas and his world in which it is possible for a chimp to talk. It isn't all bright and shiny, and this is a disturbing and often saddening book that makes us question ourselves as we see a picture of humans through Bruno's eyes. However, for me, it was a gift that I absolutely appreciated.