The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

The murderer's confession is a familiar framework for a novel: in The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore the eponymous 24-year-old narrator, like many others, takes the occasion of his loss of freedom "to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs." If Bruno sounds like the very model of a bitter, condescending, self-involved young man, well, only the adjectives in this description are accurate, for Bruno is a chimpanzee who learned how to speak—the first major step in his evolution from a seemingly typical zoo animal into an educated, witty, jaded anomaly, one whose love-hate relationship with the world is informed by his unique experiences. The premise might seem like the starting point for a far-fetched, cartoonish novel, but this ambitious debut by Benjamin Hale succeeds in its exuberant examination of what it means to be human—and does it by gradually (and enticingly) revealing a scientific explanation for Bruno's "unusual case."

 

"I remember—very, very vaguely—I remember even beginning to feel at home with the sinuous ribbonlike rhythms of human conversation fluttering in and out of my ears, trickling like cool water over the smooth stone of my brain, carving designs into my infantile and infinitely malleable consciousness," Bruno says.

 

He may be deprived of his liberty, but he's not in prison; he's at a research center in Georgia, where he often spends his days and nights drinking wine (hard liquor is forbidden), developing as a painter (oil on canvas is his chosen medium) and reciting his bildungsroman to a college intern named Gwen Gupta, who serves as his amanuensis. He recounts his early life in a zoo ("my family of uneducated slobs…All of them sadly ignorant, broken and disaffected by lifetimes spent in diaspora") and how his performance in a lab experiment set him apart from other chimps and attracted the attention of a primatologist named Lydia Littlemore.

 

"Most people would speak to me in that putrid bouncing-inflection singsong that adults use when condescending to children or animals. But not Lydia. No, she spoke to me in the same sober conversational tone of voice she would have used to address anyone else, and this easily won my loyalty, at first."

 

Locked in his cage at the lab, Bruno interacts with a slow-witted janitor whose attention to Bruno effects a surprising development.

 

"And every night the lumpy man in the blue uniform would arrive and speak with me for one hour. The language between us was beginning to almost mean something. For instance, we had learned one another's names, and we had developed an idiosyncratic system of signs and words for greeting and leavetaking. We were beginning to create a little pidgin dialect, a trade language, a lingua franca just for the two of us."

 

When Bruno says his name to Lydia, she's expectedly stunned. And though she can't get him to do it again in front of other scientists (at first, anyway), she's allowed to take him home from the lab to oversee his education and development. His desire to be human, to share a life with Lydia, spurs his evolution.

 

"A being does not acquire language because scientists give it treats if it learns words," Bruno says. "A being acquires language because it is curious, because it yearns to participate in the perpetual reincarnation of the world. It is not just a trick of agreement. It is not a process of painting symbols over the faces of the raw materials of the cosmos. A being acquires language to carve out its own consciousness, its own active and reactive existence. A being screams because it is in pain, and it acquires language to communicate."

 

Lydia's teaching is scattershot, and Bruno is largely self-taught—helped along by reading ("The literary characters with whom I most strongly identify are Caliban, Woyzeck, Milton's Satan, and Pinocchio") and absorbing the wisdom of Bert and Ernie. "In Sesame Street, as in much children's entertainment, it is seen as perfectly natural that human beings should freely verbally communicate with nonhuman creatures."

 

Because Bruno's an autodidact, there are large holes in his education, and these shortcomings create some of the most humorous (and unsettling) scenes in the book. He's not sexually attracted to chimps, and some of his interactions with human females are explicit in their descriptions. This will definitely be unnerving to some readers, but a description of the evolution of a creature, chimp or human, without these details would have done a disservice to the story's larger shape.

 

A "novel," by definition, presents something "new." And The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore—though it draws on some familiar tropes—still startles with its audacious ingenuity.

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