The murderer’s confession is a familiar framework for anovel: in The Evolution of BrunoLittlemore the eponymous24-year-old narrator, like many others, takes the occasion of his loss offreedom “to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generousgift of my memoirs.” If Bruno sounds like the very model of a bitter,condescending, self-involved young man, well, only the adjectives in thisdescription are accurate, for Bruno is a chimpanzee who learned how to speak—thefirst major step in his evolution from a seemingly typical zoo animal into aneducated, witty, jaded anomaly, one whose love-hate relationship with the worldis informed by his unique experiences. The premise might seem like the startingpoint for a far-fetched, cartoonish novel, but this ambitious debut by BenjaminHale succeeds in its exuberant examination of what it means to be human—anddoes it by gradually (and enticingly) revealing a scientific explanation forBruno’s “unusual case.”
“I remember—very, veryvaguely—I remember even beginning to feel at home with the sinuous ribbonlikerhythms of human conversation fluttering in and out of my ears, trickling likecool water over the smooth stone of my brain, carving designs into my infantileand infinitely malleable consciousness,” Bruno says.
He may be deprived of hisliberty, but he’s not in prison; he’s at a research center in Georgia, where he often spends his days andnights drinking wine (hard liquor is forbidden), developing as a painter (oilon canvas is his chosen medium) and reciting his bildungsroman to a collegeintern named Gwen Gupta, who serves as his amanuensis. He recounts his earlylife in a zoo (“my family of uneducated slobs…All of them sadly ignorant,broken and disaffected by lifetimes spent in diaspora”) and how hisperformance in a lab experiment set him apart from other chimps and attractedthe attention of a primatologist named Lydia Littlemore.
“Most people would speak tome in that putrid bouncing-inflection singsong that adults use whencondescending to children or animals. But not Lydia. No, she spoke to me in thesame sober conversational tone of voice she would have used to address anyoneelse, and this easily won my loyalty, at first.”
Locked in his cage at the lab, Brunointeracts with a slow-witted janitor whose attention to Bruno effects asurprising development.
“And every night the lumpyman in the blue uniform would arrive and speak with me for one hour. Thelanguage between us was beginning to almost mean something. For instance, wehad learned one another’s names, and we had developed an idiosyncratic systemof signs and words for greeting and leavetaking. We were beginning to create alittle pidgin dialect, a trade language, a lingua franca just for the two ofus.”
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 (atfirst, anyway), she’s allowed to take him home from the lab to oversee hiseducation and development. His desire to be human, to share a life with Lydia,spurs his evolution.
“A being does not acquirelanguage because scientists give it treats if it learns words,” Brunosays. “A being acquires language because it is curious, because it yearnsto participate in the perpetual reincarnation of the world. It is not just atrick of agreement. It is not a process of painting symbols over the faces ofthe raw materials of the cosmos. A being acquires language to carve out its ownconsciousness, its own active and reactive existence. A being screams becauseit 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 literarycharacters with whom I most strongly identify are Caliban, Woyzeck, Milton’sSatan, and Pinocchio”) and absorbing the wisdom of Bert and Ernie. “InSesame Street, as in much children’sentertainment, it is seen as perfectly natural that human beings should freelyverbally communicate with nonhuman creatures.”
Because Bruno’s an autodidact,there are large holes in his education, and these shortcomings create some ofthe most humorous (and unsettling) scenes in the book. He’s not sexuallyattracted to chimps, and some of his interactions with human females are explicitin their descriptions. This will definitely be unnerving to some readers, but adescription of the evolution of a creature, chimp or human, without thesedetails would have done a disservice to the story’s larger shape.
A “novel,” bydefinition, presents something “new.” And The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore—though it draws on some familiartropes—still startles with its audacious ingenuity.