By Ron Charles
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; C04
By Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau. 306 pp. $26
If we told all the animals in literature to shut up, the silence would be horrible. Sure, the serpent got our conversations off to an awkward start, but between the Garden of Eden and the Hundred Acre Wood, furry creatures have been some of our most cherished interlocutors. Who hasn't fantasized, along with Dr. Dolittle, that "if we could talk to the animals, just imagine it/Chatting to a chimp in chimpanzee"?
But in real life, despite our superior intelligence, animals have made a lot more progress in learning our language than we've made in learning theirs. After all, most people have no idea what their dogs are barking, but even the scrappiest junkyard hound can follow a variety of human words. And remember back in 1998, the primordial days of the Internet, when Koko the gorilla conducted the first-ever interspecies chat over AOL with 8,000 subscribers? Although there are plenty of smart detractors, language research with animals continues to produce evidence of intelligent conversations that should remind us that we're not alone.
As every member of every book club in America knows, halfway through Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants," the narrator finally figures out how to communicate with a recalcitrant pachyderm in a Depression-era circus. (Look for the movie version in April starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.) Now, in her much-anticipated follow-up to that charming bestseller, Gruen addresses the subject of animal language even more directly. Jumping over those popular novels about detective cats and telepathic dogs, "Ape House" considers the capacity of animals to think and communicate from a scientific perspective.
After visiting the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Gruen was inspired to set her new book in a similar laboratory, where scientists teach primates to use symbols and signs to carry on conversations. This research raises profound moral and philosophical questions about our relations with "every beast of the field," and I'm sympathetic to animals-rights arguments, even when they're corralled in works of fiction: Annie Proulx's "That Old Ace in the Hole" got me to swear off pork. Rob Levandoski's "Fresh Eggs" encouraged me to switch to the free-range variety. And I expect to keep moving toward vegetarianism as thoughtful writers show me the inhumanity of our cruel (and unhealthy) carnivorous diets. But unfortunately, beyond parroting a few animal rights platitudes, "Ape House" doesn't have much to say about the subject it raises so earnestly. Gruen investigated how apes learn human language and then inexplicably buried her discoveries under a silly thriller about a sad-sack journalist and a naive primate scientist.
Too bad, because the opening chapters show just how much potential this story has to move and inform us. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter John Thigpen comes to Kansas City to write about developments at the Great Ape Language Lab. He has some idea of what's being done here with bonobos -- small, peaceful cousins of chimpanzees -- but the experience of communicating with them "changed his comprehension of the world in such a profound way that he could not yet articulate it. . . . He'd looked into their eyes and recognized without a shadow of a doubt that sentient, intelligent beings were looking back."
Gruen has a deep sympathetic regard for these bonobos -- they'll be your favorite characters, too -- and she conveys their playfulness and eager sexuality with great delight. To be sure, she anthropomorphizes them, but once an animal is actually talking with a human being, let's face it, that horse has left the barn. By showing the apes signing with John and their keeper, Dr. Isabel Duncan, Gruen gives a sense of the unsettling nature of their ability: just how revolutionary it is to realize that creatures we routinely imprison, infect and dissect are, in fact, intelligent and loving, capable of fear and empathy. It's a revelation that rejiggers your whole concept of personhood. As Dr. Duncan tells John, "Over the years, they've become more human, and I've become more bonobo."
But soon something horrible happens -- to the apes and to the novel: Terrorists bomb the lab, Dr. Duncan barely survives, and her cowardly university, desperate to avoid further attacks, sells the animals to a notorious pornographer for a new reality TV show called "Ape House."
At first, it seems that Gruen is resetting her novel as a zany satire of American culture, from media excess to medical ethics, with the poor apes standing in as the only humane creatures in a world gone mad. That could work, too, of course, but the author seems unwilling to provide anything more than rough sketches: The pornographer, his obscene ape TV show, the radical eco-protesters, the outrageous tabloid coverage -- it's all dashed off and obvious.
Instead, the story insists on pursuing a couple of limp romantic crises, one about John and his depressed wife; the other involving Dr. Duncan and her fiance, who may be monkeying around with the wrong people. No opportunity for lachrymose melodrama is passed by: Even the African violets die a terrible death. The bonobos make a few more tantalizing appearances, but we remain caged in John's and Dr. Duncan's mopey stories while all the interesting action seems to be happening somewhere else.
Particularly in a book inspired by the miracle of language, it's disappointing to see such reliance on cliches, as though the novel drove to the Costco Phrase Store and loaded up with off-the-shelf words. John "found the atmosphere intoxicating," or "lied copiously and through his teeth," or "wanted to shrink into the earth." Seeing the damage done to the lab was "like taking a cannonball to the gut. . . . He knew he should try to collect himself, but at this point he had nothing to lose." Maybe these complaints sound like English-teacher pedantry, but the cumulative effect of such stylistic sloth is deadening.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room is why someone at Gruen's new publishing house didn't give her the benefit of a good edit. Even if the silly story and the trite characters couldn't be saved, why leave these pages pocked with such lines? The answer, I can only assume, has something to do with the more than $5 million that a division of Random House reportedly paid to lure Gruen away from Algonquin, her small North Carolina publisher. That cynical process has misserved a beloved writer and her elephantine fan base. If there were any justice in publishing, Spiegel & Grau would be heckled by People for the Ethical Treatment of Authors.
Charles is the fiction editor at The Post. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.