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.
Read an Excerpt
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
By Hale, Benjamin
Twelve Copyright © 2011 Hale, Benjamin
All right reserved.
… But man, proud man,
Dress’d in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
—Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
My name is Bruno Littlemore: Bruno I was given, Littlemore I gave myself, and with some prodding I have finally decided to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs. I give this gift with the aim and hope that they will enlighten, enchant, forewarn, instruct, and perchance even entertain. However, I find the physical tedium of actually writing unendurable. I never bothered learning to type any more adroitly than by use of the embarrassingly primitive “hunt-and-peck” method, and as for pen and paper, my hands are awkwardly shaped and tire easily of etching out so many small, fastidious markings. That is why I have decided to deliver my memoirs by dictation. And because voice recorders detest me for the usual reasons, I must have an amanuensis. Right now it is eleven fifteen in the morning on a drably nondescript day in September; I am lying partially supine and extremely comfortably on a couch, my shoes off but my socks on, a glass of iced tea tinkling peacefully in my hand, and there is a soft-spoken young woman named Gwen Gupta sitting in this very room with me, recording my words in a yellow notepad with a pencil and a laserlike sense of concentration. Gwen, my amanuensis, is a college student employed as an intern at the research center where I am housed. It is she who acts as midwife to these words which my mind conceives and my lungs and tongue bear forth, delivering them from my mouth and by the sheer process of documentation imbuing them with the solemnity and permanence of literature.
Now to begin. Where should I begin, Gwen? No, don’t speak. I’ll begin with the first time I met Lydia, because Lydia is the reason why I am here.
But before I begin, I guess I should briefly describe my surroundings and current predicament. One could say that I am in captivity, but such a word implies that I have a desire to be elsewhere, which I do not. If one were to ask me, “Bruno, how are you?” I would most likely reply, “Fine,” and that would be the truth. I know I’m well provided for. I like to think of myself not as imprisoned, but in semiretirement. As you already know, I am an artist, which my keepers recognize and respect, allowing me to occupy myself with the two arts most important to my soul: painting and the theatre. As for the former, the research center generously provides me with paints, brushes, canvases, etc. My paintings even sell in the world beyond these walls—a world that holds little remaining interest for me—where, I’m told, they continue to fetch substantial prices, with the proceeds going to the research center. So I make them rich, the bastards. I don’t care. To hell with them all, Gwen: I paint only to salve the wounds of my troubled heart; the rest is grubby economics. As for the latter—the theatre—I am preparing to stage a production of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, directed by and starring myself in the title role, which our modest company will perform in a few weeks for the research center staff and their friends and families. Broadway it’s not, nor even off-Broadway—but it satiates (in a small way) a lust for the spotlight that may be integral to understanding my personality. My friend Leon Smoler visits me occasionally, and on these occasions we laugh and reminisce. Sometimes we play backgammon, and sometimes we converse on philosophical subjects until the smoky blue edge of dawn creeps into visibility through my windows. The research center allows me to live in all the comfort and relative privacy that any human being could expect to want—more, really, considering that my mind is free from the nagging concerns of maintaining my quotidian persistence in the world. I am even allowed outside whenever I please, where, when I am in my most Thoreauvian moods, I am allowed to roam these woods in spiritual communion with the many trees that are thick-trunked with antiquity and resplendent with drooping green mosses and various fungi. The research center is located in Georgia, a place I had never been to before I was relocated here. As far as I can determine from my admittedly limited perspective, Georgia seems to be a pleasant enough and lushly pretty place, with a humid subtropical climate that proves beneficial to my constitution. Honestly, on most days it feels like I am living in some kind of resort, rather than being confined against my will due to a murder that I more or less committed (which, by the way, could time be reversed, I would recommit without hesitation). Because this more-or-less murder is a relatively unimportant event in my life, I will not bother to mention it again until much later, but it is at least ostensibly accountable for my current place of residence, and therefore also for your project. I am, however, no ordinary criminal. I suppose the reason I’m being held in this place is not so much to punish as to study me, and I presume this is the ultimate aim of your project. And I can’t say I blame them—or you—for wanting to study me. I am interesting. Mine is an unusual case.
As a matter of fact, Gwen, I should apologize to you for my initial refusals to grant your repeated requests for an interview. Just speaking these opening paragraphs has made me realize that nothing I’ve ever yet experienced better satisfies my very human desire for philosophical immortality than your idea of recording this story—catching it fresh from the source, getting it right, setting it down for the posterity of all time: my memories, my loves, my angers, my opinions, and my passions—which is to say, my life.
Now to begin. 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.
Before I begin properly, I feel like the first thing I have to do for you here is to focus the microscope of your attention on this specimen, this woman, Lydia Littlemore. Much later, in her honor, I would even assume her lilting three-syllable song of a surname. Lydia is important: her person, her being, the way she occupied a room, the way she did and continues to occupy so much space in my consciousness. The way she looked. The way she smelled. That ineffably gorgeous smell simmering off her skin—it was entirely beyond my previous olfactory experience, I didn’t know what to make of it. Her hair. It was blond (that was exotic to me, too). Her hair was so blond it looked electrically bright, as if, maybe, in the dark, her hair would naturally glow forth with bioluminescent light, like a lightning bug, or one of those dangly-headed deep-sea fish. On that day when we first met, she had, as was her wont, most of this magnificent electric blond stuff gathered behind her head just under the bump of her skull in a no-nonsense ponytail that kept it from getting in her eyes but allowed three or four threads to escape; these would flutter around her face, and she had a habit of always sliding them behind the ridges of her ears with her fingers. Futilely!—because they would soon be shaken loose again, one by one, or all at once when she snatched off the glasses she sometimes wore. When Lydia was at work, her hands were endlessly at war with her hair and her glasses. Off come the glasses, fixed to a lanyard by the earpieces, and now (look!) they dangle from her neck like an amulet, these two prismatic wafers of glass glinting at you from the general vicinity of those two beacons of womanhood—her breasts!—and now (look!) they’re on again, slightly magnifying her eyes, and if you walk behind her you will see the lanyard hanging limp between her shoulder blades. On they went, off they came, never resting for long either on the bridge of her nose (where they left their two ovular footprints on the sides of the delicate little bone that she massaged with her fingers when she felt a headache coming) or hanging near her heart. Once, in fact—this was much later, when I was first learning my numbers—I had briefly become obsessed with counting things, and I counted the number of times Lydia took her glasses off and put them on again during an hour of watching her at work, and then I counted the number of times she tucked the wisps of hair behind her ears. The results: in a one-hour period, Lydia put her glasses on thirty-one times and removed them thirty-two, and she tucked the wisp or wisps of hair behind her ear or ears a total of fifty-three times. That’s an average of nearly once a minute. But I think these habits were merely indicative of a nervous discomfort she felt around her colleagues, because when she and I were alone together, unless she was performing some task demanding acute visual focus (such as reading), the glasses remained in their glasses-case and her hair hung down freely.
I will speak now of her body, style of dress, and general comportment. She was, obviously, much taller than me, but not ridiculously tall for a human woman, maybe about five feet five, though the birdlike litheness of her limbs gave the illusion that she was taller. To me, anyway. She exercised often, ate a salubrious diet, and never felt tempted by any of the body-wrecking superfluities that so easily sing me out to sea, so innately deaf was she to their siren songs; for instance, she drank only socially, and even then not much. Her hands were knobby-knuckled and almost masculine in aspect, with fingernails frayed from light labor and habitual gnawing (one of her few vices); these were pragmatic hands, nothing dainty about them; hers was not the sort of hand a pedestrian poet might describe as being “alabaster,” nor the sort of hand onto the ring finger of which one might slip a diamond ring in a TV commercial advertising relucent diamonds wrested from the soil of darkest Africa. She dressed sharply, a bit conservatively. She dressed stylishly but not in a way that drew outrageous attention to herself. No, ostentation was not her style. (Ostentation is my style.) Black turtleneck sweaters were her style. Light tan sateen blazers were her style. Flannel scarves were her style. She shopped at Marshall Field’s. She wore hairpins. She wore sandals in the summer. She wore boots in the winter. She wore jewelry only on special occasions, though she wore on all occasions an effortless aura of beatific radiance. She looked good in green.
I will speak now of the sound of her voice. It made its impression on me the very first day we met. 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. Her voice had a faint but discernible twang in it; she’d originated from a family of noble hardworking bozos from some godforsaken backwater town in rural Arkansas, but she had fled her background upward and away into education much in the same way as I’ve fled mine, and she spoke like a young woman with a doctorate from the University of Chicago, which is what she was. She spoke in grammatical sentences, with punctuation marks audible in them: periods, parentheses, colons, even the sometime semicolon. Listening to her voice was like listening to a piece of classical music being performed by a full symphony orchestra with one slightly out-of-tune banjo in it, lonesomely plinking along to the opus somewhere in the string section.
And I will speak now of her face. Lydia’s face was etiolated and Scandinavian-looking enough that she wouldn’t have looked out of place in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman movie, though her eyes were not the pellucid blue ones that you would expect to see in the head of the woman I’ve thus far described. Her eyes were gold-flecked green. Her irises begged comparisons to tortoise shells, to the corollas of green roses with bronze-dipped petals, to two green-gold stars exploding in another galaxy, observed through a telescope a billion years later. On her driver’s license they were “hazel.” She had a long face with a lot of distance between her thin mouth and the bottommost tip of her slightly cleft chin. Her skin had the sort of pallor that pinks rather than tans in the sun. Two delicately forking blue veins were barely noticeable on her temples. The bridge of her nose was a perfectly straight diagonal line, but the tip of it was blunt and upturned at an angle just obtuse enough to allow, from a directly frontal view, easy gazing into the depths of her nostrils. Her forehead was wide and featured a very subtle bump above the supraorbital ridge. Her cheekbones were not high and emerged to definition only in the harshest of lighting. She seldom wore makeup, and when she did, it was just hints and touches, because slathering too much ornamental glop on that face of hers would have diminished its effect rather than enhance it. Her snaggletoothed smile served as a memento of childhood poverty. She was twenty-seven years old when I first met her, and thirty-four when she died.
But why—why have I spent so much energy, so much of both my time and yours describing this woman, having probably succeeded only in distorting rather than elucidating her image in your mind’s eye? Because Lydia was my First Love. Make sure you write that with a capital L, Gwen. And why don’t you go ahead and capitalize the F in first as well. Because Lydia was my capital-O Only capital-L Love, or at least the only Only Love I would ever dare to capitalize.
Now we may begin in earnest. New chapter, please.
Excerpted from The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Hale, Benjamin Copyright © 2011 by Hale, Benjamin. Excerpted by permission.
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