Ape Houseby Sara Gruen
The wildly entertaining new novel from the bestselling author of Water for Elephants.
Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn't understand people, but apes she gets—especially the bonobos Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena, who are capable of reason and communication through American Sign Language./b>/i>
The wildly entertaining new novel from the bestselling author of Water for Elephants.
Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn't understand people, but apes she gets—especially the bonobos Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena, who are capable of reason and communication through American Sign Language. Isabel feels more comfortable in their world than she's ever felt among humans—until she meets John Thigpen, a very married reporter writing a human interest feature. But when an explosion rocks the lab, John's piece turns into the story of a lifetime—and Isabel must connect with her own kind to save her family of apes from a new form of human exploitation.
In this novel about a researcher's devotion to a family of bonobo apes, the author ofWater for Elephants(2006) turns her attention to another mistreated mammal whose intellectual capacity has been undervalued by humans.
Aspergerish Isabel Duncan has found joy studying the advanced language development of bonobo apes that have been raised to communicate in English and sign language. At the research lab where she works, the bonobos—matriarch Bonzi, outgoing Sam, adolescent Jelani, pregnant Makena, sensitive male Mbongo and baby Lola—are treated with respect and love, but animal-rights activists constantly protest the facility. Shortly afterPhiladelphia Inquirerreporter John Thigpen interviews Isabel, watches her play with the bonobos as an equal and experiences one-on-one communication with Bonzi, the Language Lab is bombed by masked intruders, and the Earth Liberation League, an animal-rights extremist group, claims responsibility. Isabel is seriously wounded. The apes are not physically hurt, but the university funding Isabel's research quickly sells them to a secret buyer to avoid further problems. Isabel's fiancé and boss Dr. Peter Benton's nonchalance horrifies her, and she throws him out even before she finds out he's slept with her assistant. (Gruen conveys to the reader loud and clear early on that Benton is a baddy.) The apes have ended up in New Mexico starring in a hit reality show produced by a porno magnate that emphasizes their sex lives over their language skills. Isabel vows to save the bonobos even if it means working with former enemies. Meanwhile John is fired from the Inquirerand moves to Los Angeles when his wife, a discouraged novelist, gets a TV job. When a sleazy tabloid hires John to check out the reality show in New Mexico, he and Isabel work separately and together to save the bonobos.
The factual information Gruen presents about bonobos and their language acquisition is compelling; unfortunately, the humans, who get far more page space, are a drag.
The New York Times
Quick. What do you know about bonobos?
a. Along with humans and dolphins, they are the only animals known to have recreational sex.
b. They are a matriarchal, egalitarian, peaceful culture.
c. They share 98.7 percent of their DNA with humans.
d. They look like chimpanzees but slimmer, with flatter features and black faces.
e. All of the above.
No matter if you got the right answer. (It's e.) After reading Sara Gruen's captivating fourth novel, Ape House, you'll not only know about bonobos in general, you'll also know half a dozen of these great apes as characters with personalities as distinct as fingerprints. Gruen's gift for reaching across the species divide is as evident in Ape House as it was in her mega-selling Water for Elephants, which featured Rosie, the Depression-era circus elephant. Not since Jack London explored the boundaries between the domesticated dog and the wolf in The Call of the Wild has a writer dramatized the bonds between humans and our fellow creatures with such empathy.
Gruen credits the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, with grounding her in solid research (including actual human-bonobo dialogue) for her latest, which begins with an extended family of six bonobos living in the university-sponsored Great Ape Language Lab. They communicate with humans via American Sign Language and lexigrams.
In poignant early scenes, Gruen demonstrates the loving relationships between Isabel, a key scientist at the lab, and the six bonobos in her care for eight years. "We are, all of us, collaborators. We are, in fact, family," Isabel explains to John, a down-on-his-luck reporter sent to cover the apes. With John we meet Bonzi, the matriarch of the group, "calm, assured, thoughtful and inordinately fond of M&Ms," and the others. Sam, the oldest male, is charismatic; Jeloni, an adolescent male, is a show-off; his biggest fan is Makena, who is pregnant. Lola, the baby, likes to tease. Mbongo is the smallest, most sensitive male.
The plot revs into high gear when the bonobos sense danger. "Visitor, Smoke," Sam signs urgently just before an explosion sends a fireball through the hallway. Isabel is badly injured, and the bonobos "liberated" into the treetops. An extremist animal-rights group claims responsibility. While recuperating, Isabel learns the university has sold the bonobos to a pornography producer and they are set to star in a reality TV show. She finds the opening clip appalling: "Six apes! One computer, and unlimited credit…Find out about our 'kissin' cousins' on Ape House." With Celia, her edgy magenta-haired intern, she heads to the set, determined to rescue them. John follows, hoping to find the story of his career.
As Isabel pursues her mission, Gruen underlines the power of the Internet, the tawdry tendencies of contemporary media ("Stir up hype," the producer demands. "Then send in the beer and cap guns"), and the increasingly cruel disconnects between humans and animals.
Isabel's mission keeps Ape House churning along. Gruen devotes equal time to plotlines involving John and his ambivalent wife Amanda, Isabel's colleagues, and a string of lesser players. But most of them pale by comparison to the bonobos. Lively, witty, warm-hearted and sharp, these six prove to be scene-stealers of the first order.
“Propulsive...Gruen writes with the commercial breathlessness of a cozier Dan Brown.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Gruen delivers a tale that’s full of heart, hope, and compelling questions about who we really are.”—Redbook
“Animal lovers, gather ‘round...[Ape House] is much better [than Water for Elephants]—funny because of some weird characters and circumstances that make life difficult for our intrepid reporter, and at the same time, compelling because those apes put to shame our beloved Homo sapiens.”—Newark Star Ledger
“Part expose, part thriller, part gothic romance and part comedy and farce...Gruen is a master at the popular novel plot.”—Asheville Citizen Times
“Gruen is clearly enjoying herself here. It is fun...the conceit of a household of language-endowed apes as the ne plus ultra of reality TV — leering humans greedy for profits and naughty thrills...apes who are at once innocent and more compassionate and dignified than the producers and the viewers — is terrific: an incisive piece of social commentary.”—New York Times Book Review
"[Ape House] hums along with a pop-culture plot full of slick profiteers, sleazy pornographers, idiotic reality TV and gossip rags — with botox and ape sex thrown in for entertaining reading.”—Des Moines Register
“Gruen has a knack for pacing and for creating distinctive animal characters. Scenes involving the bonobos are winsome without being sappy, and the reader comes to share Isabel’s concern for the animals.”—Boston Globe
"Gruen’s astute, wildly entertaining tale of interspecies connection is a novel of verve and conscience.”—Booklist (Starred review)
"Has the dramatic tension of a crime thriller...Twists and turns, lies, and treachery abound in this funny, clever, and perceptive story."—Library Journal (Starred review)
"Sara Gruen knows things—she knows them in her mind and in her heart. And, out of what she knows, she has created a true thriller that is addictive from its opening sentence. Devour it to find out what happens next, but also to learn remarkable and moving things about life on this planet. Very, very few novels can change the way you look at the world around you. This one does."—Robert Goolrick, author of A Reliable Wife
"I read Ape House in one joyous breath. Ever an advocate for animals, Gruen brings them to life with the passion of a novelist and the accuracy of a scientist. She has already done more for bonobos than I could do in a lifetime. The novel is immaculately researched and lovingly crafted. If people fall in love with our forgotten, fascinating, endangered relative, it will be because of Ape House."—Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
Ape HouseA Novel
By Sara Gruen
Random House Large PrintCopyright © 2010 Sara Gruen
All right reserved.
The plane had yet to take off, but Osgood, the photographer, was already snoring softly. He was in the center seat, wedged between John Thigpen and a woman in coffee-colored stockings and sensible shoes. He listed heavily toward the latter, who, having already made a great point of lowering the armrest, was progressively becoming one with the wall. Osgood was blissfully unaware. John glanced at him with a pang of envy; their editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer was loath to spring for hotels and had insisted that they complete their visit to the Great Ape Language Lab in a single day. And so, despite seeing in the New Year the night before, John, Cat, and Osgood had all been on the 6 a.m. flight to Kansas City that same morning. John would have loved to close his eyes for a few minutes, even at the risk of accidentally cozying up to Osgood, but he needed to expand his notes while the details were fresh.
John’s knees did not fit within his allotted space, so he turned them outward into the aisle. Because Cat was behind him, reclining his seat was not an option. He was well aware of her mood. She had an entire row to herself—an unbelievable stroke of luck—but she had just asked the flight attendant for two gins and a tonic. Apparently having three seats to herself was not enough to offset the trauma of having spent her day poring over linguistics texts when she had been expecting to meet six great apes. Although she’d tried to disguise the symptoms of her cold ahead of time and explain away the residual as allergies, Isabel Duncan, the scientist who had greeted them, sussed her out immediately and banished her to the Linguistics Department. Cat had turned on her legendary charm, which she reserved for only the most dire of circumstances, but Isabel had been like Teflon. Bonobos and humans share 98.7 percent of their DNA, she’d said, which makes them susceptible to the same viruses. She couldn’t risk exposing them, particularly as one was pregnant. Besides, the Linguistics Department had fascinating new data on the bonobos’ vocalizations. And so a disappointed, sick, and frustrated Cat spent the afternoon at Blake Hall hearing about the dynamic shape and movement of tongues while John and Osgood visited the apes.
“You were behind glass anyway, right?” Cat complained in the taxi afterward. She was crammed between John and Osgood, both of whom kept their heads turned toward their respective windows in a futile attempt to avoid germs. “I don’t see how I could have given them anything from behind glass. I would have stood at the back of the room if she’d asked me. Hell, I’d have worn a gas mask.” She paused to snort Afrin up both nostrils and then honked mightily into a tissue. “Do you have any idea what I went through today?” she continued. “Their lingo is completely incomprehensible. I was already in trouble at ‘discourse.’ Next thing I knew it was ‘declarative illocutionary point’ this, ‘deontic modality’ that, blah blah blah.” She emphasized the “blahs” with her hands, waving the Afrin bottle in one and the crumpled tissue in the other. “I almost lost it on ‘rank lexical relation.’ Sounds like a smelly, overly chatty uncle, doesn’t it? How on earth do they think I’m going to be able to work that into a newspaper piece?”
John and Osgood exchanged a silent, relieved glance when they got their seat assignments for the trip home. John didn’t know Osgood’s take on today’s experience—they hadn’t had a moment alone—but for John, something massive had shifted.
He’d had a two-way conversation with great apes. He’d spoken to them in English, and they’d responded using American Sign Language, all the more remarkable because it meant they were competent in two human languages. One of the apes, Bonzi, arguably knew three: she was able to communicate by computer using a specially designed set of lexigrams. John also hadn’t realized the complexity of their native tongue—during the visit, the bonobos had clearly demonstrated their ability to vocalize specific information, such as flavors of yogurt and locations of hidden objects, even when unable to see each other. He’d looked into their eyes and recognized without a shadow of a doubt that sentient, intelligent beings were looking back. It was entirely different from peering into a zoo enclosure, and it changed his comprehension of the world in such a profound way he could not yet articulate it.
Being cleared by Isabel Duncan was only the first step in getting inside the apes’ living quarters. After Cat’s banishment to Blake Hall, Osgood and John were taken into an administrative office to wait while the apes were consulted. John had been told ahead of time that the bonobos had final say over who came into their home, and also that they’d been known to be fickle: over the past two years, they’d allowed in only about half of their would-be visitors. Knowing this, John had stacked his odds as much as possible. He researched the bonobos’ tastes online and bought a backpack for each, which he stuffed with favorite foods and toys—bouncy balls, fleece blankets, xylophones, Mr. Potato Heads, snacks, and anything else he thought they might find amusing. Then he emailed Isabel Duncan and asked her to tell the bonobos he was bringing surprises. Despite his efforts, John found that his forehead was beaded with sweat by the time Isabel returned from the consultation and informed him that not only were the apes allowing Osgood and him to come in, they were insisting.
She led them into the observation area, which was separated from the apes by a glass partition. She took the backpacks, disappeared into a hallway, reappeared on the other side of the glass, and handed them to the apes. John and Osgood stood watching as the bonobos unpacked their gifts. John was so close to the partition his nose and forehead were touching it. He’d almost forgotten it was there, so when the M&M’s surfaced and Bonzi leapt up to kiss him through the glass, he nearly fell backward.
Although John already knew that the bonobos’ preferences varied (for example, he knew Mbongo’s favorite food was green onions and that Sam loved pears), he was surprised by how distinct, how differentiated, how almost human, they were: Bonzi, the matriarch and undisputed leader, was calm, assured, and thoughtful, if unnervingly fond of M&M’s. Sam, the oldest male, was outgoing and charismatic, and entirely certain of his own magnetism. Jelani, an adolescent male, was an unabashed show-off with boundless energy and a particular love of leaping up walls and then flipping over backward. Makena, the pregnant one, was Jelani’s biggest fan, but was also exceedingly fond of Bonzi and spent long periods grooming her, sitting quietly and picking through her hair, with the result that Bonzi was balder than the others. The infant, Lola, was indescribably cute and also a stitch—John witnessed her yank a blanket out from under Sam’s head while he was resting and then come barreling over to Bonzi for protection, signing, bad surprise! bad surprise! (According to Isabel, messing with another bonobo’s nest was a major transgression, but there was another rule that trumped it: in their mothers’ eyes, bonobo babies could do no wrong.) Mbongo, the other adult male, was smaller than Sam and of a more sensitive nature: he opted out of further conversations with John after John unwittingly misinterpreted a game called Monster Chase. Mbongo put on a gorilla mask, which was John’s cue to act terrified and let Mbongo chase him. Unfortunately, nobody had told John, who didn’t even realize Mbongo was wearing a mask until the ape gave up and pulled it off, at which point John laughed. This was so devastating that Mbongo turned his back and flatly refused to acknowledge John from that point forward. Isabel eventually cheered him up by playing the game properly, but he declined to interact with John for the rest of the visit, which left John feeling as if he’d slapped a baby.
John looked up to find a man standing in the aisle, unable to move past John’s legs. John shifted sideways and wrangled them into Osgood’s space, which elicited a grunt. When the man passed, John returned his legs to the aisle and as he did so caught sight of a woman three rows up holding a book whose familiar cover shot a jolt of adrenaline through him. It was his wife’s debut novel, although she had recently forbidden him from using that particular phrase since it was beginning to look as though her debut novel was also going to be her last. Back when The River Wars first came out and John and Amanda were still feeling hopeful, they had coined the phrase “a sighting in the wild” to describe finding some random person in the act of reading it. Until this moment it had been theoretical. John wished Amanda had been the one to experience it. She was in desperate need of cheering up, and he’d very nearly concluded that he was helpless in that department. John checked for the location of the flight attendant. She was in the galley, so he whipped out his cell phone, rose slightly out of his seat, and snapped a picture.
The drinks cart returned; Cat bought more gin, John ordered coffee, and Osgood continued to rumble subterraneously while his human cushion glowered.
John got out his laptop and started a new file:
Similar to chimpanzees in appearance but with slimmer build, longer limbs, flatter brow ridge. Black or dusky gray faces, pink lips. Black hair parted down the center. Expressive eyes and faces. High-pitched and frequent vocalizations. Matriarchal, egalitarian, peaceful. Extremely amorous. Intense female bonding.
Although John had known something of the bonobos’ demonstrative nature, he had been initially caught off-guard at the frequency of their sexual contact, particularly between females. A quick genital rub seemed as casual as a handshake. There were predictable occurrences, such as immediately before sharing food, but mostly there was no rhyme or reason that John could ascertain.
John sipped his coffee and considered. What he really needed to do was transcribe the interview with Isabel while he could still recall and annotate the non-aural details: her expressions and gestures, and the moment—unexpected and lovely—when she’d broken into ASL. He plugged his earphones into his voice recorder, and began:
ID:So this is the part where we talk about me?
ID:[nervous laugh] Great. Can we talk about someone else instead?
ID:I was afraid of that.
JT:So what made you get into this type of work?
ID:I was taking a class with Richard Hughes—he’s the one who founded the lab—and he talked a little about the work he was doing. I was utterly fascinated.
JT:He passed away recently, didn’t he?
ID:Yes. [pause] Pancreatic cancer.
JT:So anyway, this class. Was it linguistics? Zoology?
ID:Psychology. Behavioral psychology.
JT:Is that what your degree is in?
ID:My first one. I think originally I thought it might help me understand my family—wait, can you please scratch that?
ID:That bit about my family. Can you take it out?
JT:Sure. No problem.
ID:[makes gesture of relief] Whew. Thanks. Okay, so basically I was this aimless first-year kid taking a psychology class, and I heard about the ape project and I went, and after I met the apes I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I can’t really describe it adequately. I begged and pleaded with Dr. Hughes to be allowed to do something, anything. I would mop floors, clean toilets, do laundry, just to be near them. They just . . . [long pause, faraway look] . . . I don’t know if I can say what it is. It just . . . is. I felt very strongly that this was where I belonged.
JT:So he let you.
ID:Not quite. [laughs] He told me that if I took a comprehensive linguistics course over the summer, read all his work, and came back to him fluent in ASL he’d think about it.
JT:And did you?
ID:[seems surprised] Yeah. I did. It was the hardest summer of my life. That’s like telling someone to go off and become fluent in Japanese over four months. ASL is not simply signed English—it’s a unique language, with a unique syntax. It’s usually time-topic-comment-oriented, although like English, there’s variability. For instance, you could say [starts signing], “Day-past me eat cherries,” or you could say, “Day-past eat cherries me.” But that is not to say that ASL doesn’t also use the subject-verb-?object structure; it simply doesn’t use “state-of-being” verbs.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Ape House by Sara Gruen Copyright © 2010 by Sara Gruen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Sara Gruen is the author of the #1 bestselling novel Water for Elephants, soon to be a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, as well as the bestseller Riding Lessons and Flying Changes. She shares her North Carolina home with her own version of a blended family: a husband, three children, four cats, two dogs, two horses, and a goat. In order to write her latest novel, Ape House, Gruen studied linguistics and a system of lexigrams so that she could communicate directly with the bonobos living at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. She now considers them to be part of her extended family, and, according to the bonobos, the feeling is mutual.
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