These are hairy times for fans of simian fiction. The autobiography of Tarzan's sidekick, "Me Cheeta," was mildly amusing, but Sara Gruen's silly "Ape House" left me dragging my knuckles on the floor, and Laurence Gonzales's "Lucy" read like something thrown out between the bars. Now, though, we've finally got a book to screech and howl about. Benjamin Hale's audacious first novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," is a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump up on the furniture and beat your chest.
Swinging through the absurd tale of a talking chimpanzee, Hale wraps his prehensile wit around humanity's deepest philosophical questions. From the magic of consciousness to the reifying function of language, the value of art and the morality of science, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" is a brilliant, unruly brute of a book - the kind of thing Richard Powers might write while pumped up on laughing gas. (Even Bruno's name will send you snorting to the dictionary; it stands for "Behavioral Rearing in Ultroneous Noumenal Ontogensis.") When the novel's antics aren't making you giggle, its pathos is making you cry, and its existential predicament is always making you think. No trip to the zoo, western Africa or even the mirror will ever be the same.
For all its concentration on the mechanics of scientific research, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" doesn't raise as many questions about the possibility of animal consciousness as it does about the possibility of human consciousness. The loquacious narrator, Bruno, leapfrogs over anything Koko ever managed to pound out on his little keyboard. "I was an unusual case," he admits. "Being a scientific anomaly is such a burden." Taken from the Lincoln Park Zoo to a laboratory at the University of Chicago, young Bruno first impressed the scientists when he was offered a piece of fruit in a cognition test. "Did I dare to eat a peach?" he asks with a nod to T.S. Eliot and Genesis. "Indeed I did. In this way I fell from my state of innocence."
Driven by the "very human desire for philosophical immortality," Bruno recites his life story to a young researcher, his "amanuensis," in a lab where he's being held for murder. "I can't say I blame them," he says, "for wanting to study me. I am interesting. Mine is an unusual case." What follows for hundreds (and hundreds!) of pages is the funny, sad and shocking tale of a stranger in our strange world, a place brought to account by an animal ashamed and proud of his own humanity. "Following your own example some several million years too late," he explains with his endearing grandiosity, "I climbed down from that tree to spend the rest of my life running from the yawning darkness of animal terror toward the light of fire stolen from the gods, and like you, I remain in a state of constant pursuit, never quite escaping the darkness, nor ever reaching the light."
Bruno doesn't know why he learns so quickly - "My father never quite lost his touch of aboriginal uncouthness" - but under the tutelage of an autistic janitor and a very liberal-minded cognitive psychologist named Lydia Littlemore, he emerges from his "prelapsarian nudity" and enters the world of conscious thought, "the awesome thaumaturgy of mere language." The miraculous transformation of awakening into words is a process few of us remember, but it's fraught with euphoria and despair, all of which Bruno conveys.