At a reading last spring in North Vancouver, Yann Martel became a bit defensive during the Q&A session. "Just because there are talking animals in it doesn't mean it's for children," he said in answer to a comment about Beatrice & Virgil. (I could practically see the "Humph!" in a thought balloon above his head.)
In the case of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, though, you can say that again. The novel is touted by its publisher as "the subject of buzz at the Frankfurt Book Fair for its controversial depiction of a love affair between a chimp and his human caregiver."
That'd be as opposed to your garden-variety non-controversial depictions of interspecies affairs like maybe humans and Navi. That said, the most unsettling thing here is not bestiality, but rather, a grossly over-blown prose style.
Despite an affinity for both talking animal narratives - whether for children or those of the NC-17 variety - and wordy, maximalist fiction, I found the first 200 pages of this grotesque romp both boring and annoying. Pages of exhaustive detail, such as an apartment floor plan, might be interesting in the hands of master stylists like David Foster Wallace or Rick Moody, but Benjamin Hale is not a stylist. (Yet. It's worth noting that the author is 26 and eagerly flaunting all his philosophical and literary book smarts like so many noisy bonnets at an Easter Parade.)
Bruno himself is reminiscent of other pumped-up intellectual blowhards like Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces and, more recently, Norman Bray in Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life. But John Kennedy Toole's and Trevor Cole's novels are hilarious, while Hale's is, despite being a tragicomic picaresque, not all that funny. (An extended in-joke about one Gnome Chompy coming to get Bruno in his newly lingual nightmares is one example of overworked humour.)
Born in captivity in the Chicago zoo, Bruno emerges from his Plato's cave through the salvation of spoken language. Language and its metaphysics are the soul of the novel and its most interesting thematic aspect. Language, Bruno says, even helps him capture and keep his dreams. "Mere vocabulary is not language … [a child's first spoken word is not a symbol or a representation]it is simply an act. It is not a naming of the world, but rather the world's creation."
Bruno identifies with Caliban, Milton's Satan ("a master orator") and Pinocchio, but he is most like Voltaire's Candide. Bruno and his lover and keeper, Dr. Lydia Littlemore, even take refuge in their own El Dorado, an animal sanctuary owned by a wealthy Coloradan, but must eventually leave their false Eden.
The enemy here is both the rationality of science and the irrationality of religion, not to mention Bruno's own, very human, vanity. The one truly shocking scene in the novel has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with blind hatred and religious intolerance.
Fleeing Chicago and renewed captivity for New York, Bruno meets the Falstaffian Leon Smoler, a man who had "spent a lifetime perfecting failure almost to an art form," while Leon busks Shakespeare monologues in a subway car. "I sincerely apologize to you on behalf of the human race," Leon later tells Bruno, and the two misanthropes and kindred spirits become a team.
From this point on, there is enough magic and melancholy in this somewhat repulsive but eventually compelling novel to captivate a jaded reader. Shakespeare and Darwin are connected; more heartbreak and murder ensue; and Bruno, for all his autodidactic erudition is a small-time grifter to be pitied rather than feared. Pinocchio rather than Satan.
How humans (mis)treat animals, especially apes, in and outside of the laboratory, is important to Hale's novel. But unlike the brilliant satire of Will Self's 1997 Great Apes or Rick Moody's take on rogue science in his recent The Four Fingers of Death, both of which involve hyper-learned, talking chimpanzees, Hale never manages the kind of verisimilitude that allows a story to transcend its conceits.
What is it, though, with the talking primates these days? Writers grappling with our humanity (and inhumanity), wanting to wrestle its essence to the mat? Or could it be that with the revived Darwin versus God debate we're getting savvy to the idea that evolution isn't in its end game - we aren't finished yet and neither are our primate cousins. About a decade ago, the Library of Congress in the U.S. selected the movie Planet of the Apes for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Or prescient?
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner's upcoming collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, features a number of examples of our badly behaving species.