If you think about intelligent chimps and you immediately harken back to images from the films 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Planet of the Apes, then this isn't the book for you. But if you're a big fan of Humbert Humbert in LOLITA and you think the idea of an almost-man presenting his every foible, desire and naughty thought in public (kind of like being an ape version of Snooki) is a fascinating subject, then you're going to love the epic tale of Bruno Littlemore. THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE by Benjamin Hale is a first novel that enters a world that is both despicable and compelling, disgusting and heart-swelling, scatological and philosophical. The shock value of it, like a "Real Housewives" fight, keeps you coming back for more. And Hale doesn't disappoint with the prurient details.
The book is a love story, the same way that LOLITA is --- a twisted and shameful love story, but a love story nonetheless. Lydia, the young biologist, becomes the focus of all of Bruno's affections and finds that she has some unwieldy desires of her own in the course of their relationship. They get physically involved with each other, and Hale pulls out every literary stop he can to convince us that this woman, who is scarred by a stillbirth and her husband's eventual suicide well before she met Bruno, would agree to such a relationship and truly fall in love with the chimp she's teaching to talk. All in all, it's a little far-fetched, but the author sets Lydia up to be unconventional and searching; she has an affair with another friend, a female friend, that drives Bruno to his first act of horrible violence. Thus we are expected to believe that, when she moves Bruno into her apartment, she is actually open to their physical union after he takes advantage of her one night.
Of course, the chimp-lady love situation doesn't lead to anything good. In fact, it makes the evolution of Bruno rather sad, as he strives for greater and greater human-think-and-act (including plastic surgery to give him a more manly-type nose --- thoughts of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the chimp, and Jackson's constant nose transformations, kept crowding my head) and encounters more and more of the emotional and philosophical sadness and suffering that all humans encounter.
Hale certainly has a way with words. Bruno narrates his story with a combination of tabloid fervor and Humbert Humbert sadsack reveal, and so we only see things through his eyes. I would have liked to have seen some of the action through the eyes of the various characters he runs into: the swinging doctors who rescue animals in Colorado, the mentally deficient man who takes care of the animals in the college lab at night, and Lydia herself. It's this unrelenting and somewhat verbose and stilted linguistic presentation by Bruno that kept me from completely buying the preposterous News of the World kind of situation Hale creates. This is no Dr. Doolittle, "If I Could Talk to the Animals" type of happy humans + animals story.
THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE is a disturbing treatise on our close proximity to the monkey world and flies in the face of the conservative religious pundits and pontificators who appear on Glenn Beck's program and in political arenas throwing their ideas at middle America. I commend Hale for taking them on and producing a book they surely would burn at a stake while screaming incantations about the devil. But I wish he had let go of his agenda long enough to allow us into the heads and hearts of some of the people whose worlds collide with the burgeoning insanity and heartfelt honesty of Bruno's world.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on March 28, 2011
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore