Book Quote:

“ZIRA: What will he find out there, doctor?
DR. ZAIUS: His destiny.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns  (JUN 26, 2011)

Consider the big questions. For instance, what does language afford us? Is self-consciousness and all it implies (self-reflection, guilt, joy…) embedded in language, daresay a function of language? Why do we create art? Nature or nurture, what shapes us? How is love possible? Where does rage come from? Cruelty? What are we to make of the animals, those we imprison, those we consume, the beasts we love as companions? What, indeed, does it mean to be a human being and can it, whatever it might mean, be fully realized? Now, take these questions and a bunch more just like them, and wrap them up in a narrative so unique and compelling, so rich as to bring transparency to the questions. Then shape the story around a unique voice that ranges from the mindlessly inarticulate to the Mensian complex. If you can imagine experiencing all that, you have a sense of what this book affords the adventurous reader.

This is the story of Bruno Littlemore, chimpanzee extraordinaire. Rather, more properly, as the first-person narrator tells us, this book “contains the memoirs of Bruno Littlemore, as dictated to Gwendolyn Gupta between September 9, 2007 and August 8, 2008, at the Zastrow National Primate Research Center, Eastman, GA 31024.” And what a memoir it is.

Bruno, we are informed, grew up in the Primate House of the Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago. He was the scion of Fanny, who was raised in the zoo, and Rotpeter, a chimp who had been rescued from the Congo jungle after watching “his mother and father murdered and subsequently devoured.” As a small chimp, Bruno was delivered to a the University of Chicago’s behavioral primatologist, Dr. Lydia Littlemore. He recalls the meeting early in the book. “I will begin with my first significant memory, which is the first time I met Lydia. I was still a child at the time. I was about six years old. She and I immediately developed a rapport. She picked me up and held me, kissed my head, played with my rubbery little hands, and I wrapped my arms around her neck, gripped her fingers, put strands of her hair in my mouth, and she laughed. Maybe I had already fallen in love with her, and the only way I knew to express it was by sucking on her hair.”

He quickly grasps the complexity of evolved consciousness. “I am Bruno,” he declares. “I am an animal with a human tongue, a human brain, and human desires, the most human among them to be more than what I am.” And yes, as he states, he falls in love with his keeper. Does that imply what we think it does? Well, jumping ahead, yes, they have sex, assuming your mind raced there. Bruno takes evolutionary steps, learns language, creates art, walks erect and of course has sex. This is a coming-of-age memoir, ergo sex is discovered. Inter-species relations might put some readers off, understandably. However, in the context of understanding the measure of humanness it cannot be avoided. Hale manages this territory with aplomb. But, not to get derailed, there is love here too. Lydia removes Bruno from the captors and takes him home to further her research. He has demonstrated a capacity for intelligence beyond the norm and she is convinced he is the subject from which careers are launched. That is, before she is as smitten by him as he is by her. “Of course I was in love for all the vainest and greediest reasons,” writes Bruno, several years later. “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.” This is no ordinary chimp obviously.

Bruno finds creative relief in art. He paints. He exhibits. He becomes known. But as enlightened as Bruno is, he cannot repress his more beastly urges. His outbreaks eventually cost Lydia her job. Their relationship breaks into the news and they are scandalized. They escape to the compound of a wealthy animal-rights couple in Colorado. Eventually they return to Chicago where Lydia falls ill. Bruno, left to his own devices, plunges solo into the world of humanity. He travels to New York, is befriended by Leon, a Falstafian character of brilliant, yet dubious talents. Together they produce Shakespeare’s Tempest. But circumstances intrude and Bruno must escape, returning to Chicago. Picaresque as his journeys might be, the weight of his adventures at times seems unwieldy, as if they might all fall in upon themselves, so dense and allusion-filled they seem.

Returned to Chicago, Bruno’s last act of unbridled rage occurs when he discovers that his primate sibling, Céleste, is being subjected to animal experimentation. He commits murder and lands in jail. Ironically, it is his voice, his command of language and story telling which, like Scheherazade, saves him. He is an animal, after all, and should be “put down.” But he saves himself–and his story. Nine years after committing the crime, 24 years old and hairless, his face surgically altered (he wanted a human nose), he dictates his memoir.

This book is compelling every way you consider it. It is rich in philosophy, ideas, notions, questions and preponderances. Yet, as practiced in the best of the literary tradition (yes, this book, from Dostoevsky to Nabokov, stands tall), the ideas are carried along on a narrative stream which twisting and turning is wildly entertaining. The writing is gin-clear and elegant. (You’ll want to have a dictionary handy.) This is a first novel. What a debut for Mr. Hale, a truly wonderful and heretofore unknown author.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 50 readers
PUBLISHER: Twelve; First Edition edition (February 2, 2011)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:The Descent of Manby Kevin DesingerLove in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet


June 26, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Character Driven, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Literary

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