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‘Theory of Bastards’ is a feminist novel, but not the one you’re expecting

Don’t be put off by the abrasive title. Ignore the cover photograph of a young woman’s face staring at you from over a man’s shoulder. “Theory of Bastards” isn’t a bitter feminist diatribe about love gone wrong. We’ve read that one. Audrey Schulman has instead written a riveting page-turner about bonobos — yes, the chimplike primates — and set the action in a very near and dire future.

The book starts abruptly when Frankie Burke arrives at a Foundation in a deserted part of the Midwest, not too far from Kansas City. She is a mess. As we gradually learn, Burke has suffered for many of her 33 years from endometriosis, an agonizing uterine disorder. To alleviate her pain the Manhattan professor has finally undergone a hysterectomy and some related surgery, paying for it with money from the MacArthur grant she was recently awarded. Her special “genius” lies in researching how animals and people unconsciously choose their sexual partners.

As does much science fiction, “Theory of Bastards” takes place in an extreme version of the world we already live in. Special implants now allow people to be constantly connected to the Web. Destructive super viruses called poly-roaches periodically shut down entire digital networks. Electrical brownouts have grown common, travel advisories widespread. War continues in Syria and the Middle East. Cities on the coasts and along major rivers flood all the time. Dust storms last for days and large numbers of children are diagnosed with respiratory diseases. 3-D printers even turn lumps of edible plastic into ersatz fruits and vegetables infused with necessary nutrients. Meanwhile, books have vanished from public libraries and fewer people know how to repair broken machines. Prices have skyrocketed.

How scientists came to be

Verbally brusque, physically underweight and weak, hardly able to walk because of her stitches, Burke has come to this Foundation to study the bonobos. Unlike the similar, but aggressive chimps, they are a peaceful species, governed by an alpha female. They are also polyamorous: At the sight of food, the males and females immediately engage in extremely quick, casual sex with the nearest partner. These mini-orgies apparently defuse tension and competitiveness. Only afterward does the group eat the mango and other fruits that make up their diet.

Like other primates, the bonobos are able to communicate with humans through sign language, their comprehension level being roughly that of a preschooler. As the novel proceeds, Burke soon focuses her attention on Mama, the grizzled, almost furless alpha female, Goliath, the dominant male, and Tooch a bottle-fed juvenile. Being a stranger, she initially connects to these animals mainly through the deaf keeper who feeds them and another young researcher named Stotts, who is trying to teach Goliath to fashion a cutting tool by chipping away at a piece of rock.

Much of the first half of “Theory of Bastards” tracks Burke’s gradual acceptance by the bonobos and her growing interest in the formal and close-lipped Stotts, once a two-hitch veteran but now married and movingly devoted to his asthmatic daughter. Flashbacks also fill us in about Burke’s past: Two early love affairs, near addiction to pain medications, a whimsical experiment with finches and then a celebrated case-study involving human sexual selection based on smell and pheromones. Since her surgery, the scrawny scientist has been able to give up a lifelong diet of bland salads and now revels in the strong flavors of chocolate, mayonnaise and even lamb tartare.

Interacting ever more intimately with the bonobos, Burke begins to speculate that during ovulation the females might actually be selecting their male partners and engaging in “secret sex,” outside that of the communal orgies. If this is so, she hopes to confirm a daring hypothesis about the possible evolutionary purpose for widespread, but hidden, female infidelity among humans. “An increased desire for the lover when ovulating strongly suggested there was a benefit in having the lover’s baby rather than the husband’s — that conceiving a bastard helped in the long run.”

Female writers and thinkers unafraid to speak their minds

While any reasonably good fiction writer might highlight the similarities between humans and bonobos, Schulman — the author of four previous novels, including “Three Weeks in December” — does something more with Mama, Goliath and Tooch. She makes their behavior so beguiling, so touching, at times so kind and admirable, that we grow to love them and their antics. That’s why, when the dust storm hits halfway through the book and computerized devices cease to function, we seriously begin to worry. Perhaps this isn’t just a highly involving novel about a scientist’s emotional life or a slightly fictionalized ethological study. Perhaps it’s something more. It is. It most definitely is.

In fact, what I’ve described only covers the first half of “Theory of Bastards.” In the second half you will be unable to look away from the page, hardly be able to draw a breath.

Sharply observant of primate behavior (both human and animal), Schulman’s quick-moving and dramatic prose doesn’t really lend itself to ready quotation. Burke, like many a New Yorker, believes Midwestern humor consists mainly of “knee-slapping guffaws, as intellectual as euchre.” More poetically, she recognizes that “each important moment in life has about it a stillness, an extra beat, an awareness of the edges.” As a result, when she finds herself falling in love “something inside her clicked. Some animal part of her brain.” Let me add that in creating white-knuckle tension or describing sudden violence, Schulman can rival any our of our more famous thriller writers.

In the past, Europa brought us Muriel Barbery’s quietly brilliant takedown of class superiority, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” the witty novels of Jane Gardam, and Jean-Claude Izzo’s haunting and brutal Marseille trilogy, the foundational work of contemporary Mediterranean noir. To such distinguished company we should now add Audrey Schulman’s deeply affecting “Theory of Bastards.”

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post. 

By Audrey Schulman

Europa. 403 pp. Paperback, $23

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