By Ron Charles
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 10:36 PM
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.
Hale, who grew up in Colorado and graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, demonstrates an extraordinary intellectual range, and only his wacky sense of humor can keep Bruno from coming off as a hirsute boor. "Ostentation is my style," the chimp says by way of apology. Scrambling through the whole canon of Western culture, he identifies with all the anxious outsiders - from Milton's Satan to Shakespeare's Caliban to Disney's Pinocchio - those inhuman characters who dared to thrust themselves into existence by speaking and making us question the nature of our own humanity.
Linguistics may be the most interesting and prevalent theme of this novel, but its salacious subplot will attract more attention: "I'm sorry. It's true," Bruno says. "I am a deviant and depraved pervert: I have no desire to have sex with other chimps." In the late 1980s, a conflict with her research supervisor inspires Lydia Littlemore to take Bruno home with her, and soon the two of them are sleeping together - "like Anna and Vronsky." (Didn't former congressman J.D. Hayworth warn us about such abominations?) Their love, which dare not speak its name, eventually inspires violent protests and sends Bruno running underground for much of the novel.
A romance between a scientist and her chimp sounds a lot creepier than it ever seems in the context of this story. Though candor sometimes encourages Bruno to "stray beyond the parameters of good taste," his interaction with Lydia is always convincingly portrayed as a loving, tender relationship. This is, of course, a squeamish subject some readers will not want to explore.
"Obviously there was a sense of some deep-seated and dangerous taboo that our relationship violated," Bruno admits, but what the novel really wants to consider, in its own bizarre, cerebral and comic way, is the essential nature of love. "When it came to sex," Bruno says, "I had to make the Buberian moral shift from I/it to I/thou." Hale is a ghostly presence in this story, crouching behind irony and slapstick and intellectual satire, but surely he's most sincere in moments like this, when he tries to awaken in us the moral imagination we claim animals don't possess. Aping Oscar Wilde, Bruno quips, "I know that I am not fit to live in human society. But then again, who is?"
Yes, the book's too long, too in love with its own mock-serious voice. "I was an irrepressible chatterbox," Bruno confesses. "Do I digress? Very well, then, I digress. I am large, I contain multitudes." There's something peevish about asking an ape who can quote Whitman to wrap things up, but certain themes get pounded on, and Bruno's episodic adventures across the United States sometimes have the feel of a first-time author embarking on the trip of a lifetime and determined to cram everything into his van. Around page 500, Bruno pleads, "There's too much to say!" But just when you want to stuff this chimp back in his cage, he comes up with some unforgettable new adventure, like his off-off-Broadway production of "The Tempest" that's absolutely transporting. So let Bruno run free. He's got a lot to tell us, and we've got a lot to learn.
firstname.lastname@example.org Charles is The Post's fiction editor. He reviews books every Wednesday.
THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE
By Benjamin Hale
Twelve. 578 pp.