“The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore” tells the story of a chimpanzee who falls in love with the scientist training him, has an affair with her and, in the process, learns to speak. I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to call the subject matter daring.
Nor do I think many readers could get far into this first-time novel and disagree that its author, Benjamin Hale, is a terrific talent. He’s devised a voice for Bruno, his simian narrator, that owes something to Nabokov and something to the comic pomposity that John Kennedy Toole brought to Ignatius J. Reilly in “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
Bruno, too, is a bilious observer of the world around him. And not just the human world: He shudders at other chimps, with their “declasse habit of knuckle-walking.” He looks down his (nonexistent) nose at his family in a Chicago zoo, where, as he remembers it, “my poor dull downtrodden mother” would “comb the bits of filth out of my back fur” while only a few feet away his father copulated with his aunt. “You’d think I grew up in Appalachia.”
He’s no kinder to the human society that scorns him, even though he wants to belong to it so desperately that he submits to a nose job. More than once he quotes Shakespeare’s monster Caliban: “You taught me language, and my profit on it is, I know how to curse.”
That language is a grandiloquent wonder. (Describing a janitor’s gait: “The sound of his footsteps consisted of: one, the clomping boots; two, the whapping chain; and three, the tintinnabulation of the keys.”) Bruno can be hilarious and he can be deadly.
What he can’t be is brief. “There’s simply too much to say,” he laments, but that doesn’t keep him from trying. Nothing goes undescribed. I started to worry around page 100, when I arrived at an 11-page description of an apartment that Bruno (or his creator) sticks in just to show how good a describer he is.
By page 200 I was losing patience. By page 500 my eyes were glazed. The author must have gotten such a charge out of what he was writing that he lost sight of why he was writing. The story moves from satire to sex comedy to idyll to sex tragedy to thriller and back to comedy. By the end the only firm attribute I could put my finger on was its punishing length.
The characters, except for Bruno, range from cliches to cartoons. Satire demands a keen edge, but when all the world is mean to Bruno the book goes soft, tugging at our pity.
Limits of Tolerance
And anyway, I wasn’t convinced by the cruelty. A talking ape is a wonder that, I’m fairly confident, human beings would greet with delight, not boredom, irritation and sadism.
As for what Bruno calls “my sexual perversion” -- “I love women, and I am a chimp” -- well, it’s certainly a bizarre idea, and it opens the way to some valid (I guess) commentary on prejudice and the limits of tolerance. But I doubt that many readers are going to find it sexy. Not to mention fun.
“The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore” is published by Twelve (578 pages, $25.99). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)