The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
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The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

3.4 64
by Benjamin Hale
     
 

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Bruno Littlemore is quite unlike any chimpanzee in the world. Precocious, self-conscious and preternaturally gifted, young Bruno, born and raised in a habitat at the local zoo, falls under the care of a university primatologist named Lydia Littlemore. Learning of Bruno's ability to speak, Lydia takes Bruno into her home to oversee his education and nurture his

Overview

Bruno Littlemore is quite unlike any chimpanzee in the world. Precocious, self-conscious and preternaturally gifted, young Bruno, born and raised in a habitat at the local zoo, falls under the care of a university primatologist named Lydia Littlemore. Learning of Bruno's ability to speak, Lydia takes Bruno into her home to oversee his education and nurture his passion for painting. But for all of his gifts, the chimpanzee has a rough time caging his more primal urges. His untimely outbursts ultimately cost Lydia her job, and send the unlikely pair on the road in what proves to be one of the most unforgettable journeys — and most affecting love stories — in recent literature. Like its protagonist, this novel is big, loud, abrasive, witty, perverse, earnest and amazingly accomplished. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore goes beyond satire by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.

Editorial Reviews

Bruno Littlemore, the narrator/main character of this book, is a creationist's nightmare. Bruno, you see, is a chimpanzee who has far transcended rudimentary sign language exchanges. In fact, this robust primate not only speaks English; he frequently articulates deep thoughts on art and philosophy. His mastery of speech is only the beginning; at a research lab at the University of Chicago, he falls in love with human Dr. Lydia Littlemore, who somewhat later returns the favor. A fellow novelist called this evolutionary tale "an enormous, glorious rattlebag of a book."

Publishers Weekly
An enlightened chimp goes on the wildest adventure since Every Which Way but Loose in Hale's mischievous debut. Bruno Littlemore, the narrator chimp, eventually lands in a research lab at the University of Chicago, where he falls in love with Dr. Lydia Littlemore, who, shortly after hearing Bruno speak his name, takes him first to her apartment (sex is had, much later) and later to the quietude of a Colorado ranch owned by a couple of odd animal rights advocates. It is in this environment that Bruno becomes a fully articulate and artistic being, but the idyll does not last: Lydia falls ill, and Bruno is captured, escapes, ends up in New York City, and befriends a dreamer named Leon with whom he mounts a performance of The Tempest before being forced by circumstance to return, tragically, to Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. Bruno, having mastered speech, is quite happy to play with this new toy, going on philosophical riffs and speaking at length about art, and while his monologues are less tedious than you'd imagine, it's his quest for answers about the agonizing dilemmas of existence that is unexpectedly resonant. (Feb.)
Entertainment Weekly
"It may take a million monkeys clacking into infinity on a million Remingtons to re-create the works of Shakespeare, but it takes only one literate, hyperintelligent chimpanzee to narrate The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, a stunning debut novel . . . Making your main character a talking ape - and one who engages in a romantic liaison with a human being, no less - is ambitious, to say the least. But from the first page, it is clear that Bruno is more than mere literary gimmickry; he is fascinating and fully formed. You learn as much by what he withholds as by what he provides, and he withholds a lot. Since he's a defensive and unreliable narrator with an unorthodox sexual predilection, the easy comparison point for Bruno is Lolita's Humbert Humbert, but he calls to mind that book's author just as readily. Like Nabokov, he is a late adopter of English who throws himself wholly into the language, exploring its less-visited gems - from ''ort'' to ''trichotillomania'' - and obsessing over syntax and signifiers . . . Where the novel should be offensive, it is often tender, and where it should be risible, it is genuinely funny. . . Despite his unlikely erudition, Bruno is by turns fragile, mercurial, spiteful, narcissistic, and lost. All of which, even more than his gift of speech, just makes him that much more human.
Jodi Picoult - Newsweek's "Bookbag" feature
"Brilliant. It's a fantastic concept, that something that shares so much of our DNA can have something to say. The book is worth a read for the narrative voice alone-that of Bruno the chimp-who is erudite, arrogant, and more than a bit confused by the emotions humans take for granted."
Christopher Beha
Hale's novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical interest, that a reviewer risks making it sound ponderous or unwelcoming. So let's get this out of the way: THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE is an absolute pleasure. Much of the pleasure comes from the book's voice . . . There is a Bellovian exhuberance befitting a Chicago-born autodidact . . . There's also great pleasure in the audacity of the story itself. THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE announces that Benjamin Hale is himself a fully evolved as a writer, taking on big themes, intent on fitting the world into his work. Hale's daring is most obvious in his portrayal of the relationship between Bruno and Lydia, which eventually breaks the one sexual taboo even Nabokov wouldn't touch . . . Ultimately the point of these scenes is not to shock us but to ask what fundamentally makes us human, what differences inhere between a creature like Lydia and a creature like Bruno that disqualify the latter from the full range of human affection.
New York Times Book Review
Dan Cryer
One very evolved human, Benjamin Hale has evoked, in his first novel, the miracle of Bruno Littlemore, the world's first talking chimpanzee . . .This chimp not only speaks English, he's as sensitive and charming, as brilliant and learned, as any human alive . . . One need only read a few pages to be swept up by the grandeur of Hale's ebullient prose . . . It's Bruno's distinct voice, more than debating points, that wins us over . . . With his primary Chicago setting, engrossing storytelling, unabashed braininess, prediliction for eccentric characters, and long, looping, wonderfully evocative sentences, Hale reminds me of no writer so much as Saul Bellow. But he's got a bold, rick-taking, off-center view of the world all his own . . Adventure tale, love story, science fiction, novel of ideas - this one's got it all.
Newsday
Jodi Picoult
Brilliant. It's a fantastic concept, that something that shares so much of our DNA can have something to say. The book is worth a read for the narrative voice alone-that of Bruno the chimp-who is erudite, arrogant, and more than a bit confused by the emotions humans take for granted.
Newsweek's "Bookbag" feature
Newsweek's "Bookbag" feature
"Brilliant. It's a fantastic concept, that something that shares so much of our DNA can have something to say. The book is worth a read for the narrative voice alone-that of Bruno the chimp-who is erudite, arrogant, and more than a bit confused by the emotions humans take for granted."
Library Journal
Our evolutionary understanding of language is deeply rooted in the study of genetics; the few genes present in humans but lacking in chimpanzees are thought to be responsible for language. However, Hale's debut novel (winner of the Michener-Copernicus Award) forces us to reconsider our linguistic abilities in terms of love. Written as the memoir of the world's first speaking chimpanzee, Bruno, the story follows the extraordinary chimp from language acquisition to his eventual imprisonment. Highly intelligent and articulate, Bruno has an ever-expanding vocabulary dwarfed only by his love for the university primatologist. This is a love story. In his exploration of communication, Hale deconstructs human language within a larger continuum of communicative processes universally shared among all living beings. As a corollary, readers should be prepared to suspend willingly the artificial boundaries and taboos that exist between the species. VERDICT An ambitious, enjoyable, and lengthy debut novel; much will be written about its more controversial aspects, but Hale's prowess as a storyteller should not be ignored. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/10.]—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
Kirkus Reviews

So, a chimp walks into a bar...

Literally. At least in Hale's debut novel, whose protagonist is a chimp who, among other things, does not disdain a stiff drink or three, or even "a quadruple Scotch on the rocks, please," the aftermath of which merits ejection from a Chicago bar and a dejected walk to the apehouse down the road. Bruno is a chimp of parts: He has a knack for painting, and, he grouses, "the research center generously provides me with paints, brushes, canvases, etc." so that he can make a fortune for the place through the sales of what, after all, are a fairly scarce commodity—works of art produced by a simian other than Homo sapiens. Bruno plays backgammon, thinks philosophical thoughts, wanders the woods in Thoreauvian splendor and generally has a fairly good time of it, even though he technically is an inmate, confined on account of a rather spectacular crime he committed, one that Hale unveils only after many hundreds of pages. The notion of a learned nonhuman primate is not entirely novel; Aldous Huxley played with it in Ape and Essence, and another denizen of Chicago, Laurence Gonzales, recently did magic with it in his novel Lucy. But Hale's Bruno is smart and inclined to archness and irony, and it's a pleasure to follow his thoughts, darkling and otherwise, save for those all-too-frequent moments when Hale comes over all cute ("Cyrano de Bruno" indeed). The novel requires heaping suspensions of disbelief for those unaccustomed to the premise that a chimpanzee can write a love letter while thinking snotty thoughts about its less talented cousins, "naked, hairy animals, unenlightened, ungifted with speech." They have a word down at Tea Party central for such a critter: Elitist. And Bruno would probably cop to it, too.

A less splendid debut than the hype would suggest, but a book of considerable merit all the same—and of high entertainment value, too, as much fun as a barrel of monkeys.

Christopher R. Beha
…an absolute pleasure. Much of its pleasure comes from the book's voice…Every first-person narrator creates himself out of words, but this process is particularly acute in Bruno's case, since possession of language is the only thing that qualifies him for human consideration, especially after acts of violence for which he would otherwise be put down. Like Scheherazade, he tells his story in order to stay his execution. There's also great pleasure in the audacity of the story itself. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore announces that Benjamin Hale is himself fully evolved as a writer, taking on big themes, intent on fitting the world into his work.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
…audacious…a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump up on the furniture and beat your chest…Hale wraps his prehensile wit around humanity's deepest philosophical questions. From the magic of consciousness to the reifying function of language, the value of art and the morality of science, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a brilliant, unruly brute of a book…When the novel's antics aren't making you giggle, its pathos is making you cry, and its existential predicament is always making you think. No trip to the zoo, western Africa or even the mirror will ever be the same.
—The Washington Post
The Baton Rouge Advocate
"Bruno Littlemore is one of the most outrageous, vivid characters to populate a page in American fiction in a long time. . . . It's not only a roaring good tale, it's a wonderful musing on the nature of humanness and our relationship to the other species with which we share the planet . . . Hale's sense of humor is often ribald, and the human characters Bruno encounters during his adventures are richly drawn and often eccentric. The descriptions are clearly informed by a deep fondness, and that is the overriding tone of Bruno's narrative: love."
San Francisco Chronicle
"Imagine, for a moment, a future in which animals are accorded the same rights as humans, a society in which cattle ranchers, research scientists and pet owners are regarded with an antipathy we now reserve for eugenicists and slave traders. In the graduate literature seminars of this future, Benjamin Hale's debut novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," would be hailed as a brave and visionary work of genius . . . This interspecies coming-of-age story - in which a chimpanzee acquires language and attempts to make his way through human society - would be taught alongside "Animal Farm," the works of Temple Grandin and JM Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello. For readers of the present day, THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE offers a touching and quirky story of identity formation, a brash, glittering, engaging yarn that pushes past opposable thumbs, universal grammar and bipedal ambulation to the pulsing heart of our fair species. The novel's narrator and semi-reluctant hero announces himself with a flourish . . . Erudite and affected, bitter, brilliant and lonely, Bruno's narrative voice self-consciously echoes many of the 20th century's most memorable narrators . . . THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE is a major accomplishment. A lively page-turner that asks the big questions head on and doesn't shy away from controversy, Hale's first novel is a noisy, audacious and promising debut."
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"This is not a book for the squeamish. There is bestiality, and rape, and what one might consider an incestuous relationship. Let's acknowledge that upfront, but then move on. If you let this be an excuse for not reading the book, you're missing out on one of the more effusive and unrestrained works of fiction in years . . . It's Bruno's voice that gives this novel the complexity and life it deserves. His stories, although not always reliable, are always abundantly full of the mysteries of humanity."
Los Angeles Times
"Ambitious . . . it throbs with energy and boils with passion as it expresses a dark vision of our essential nature that strikes uncomfortably home."
The Millions
"Powerful . . . a debut novel short on arrogance or pretention, but full of confidence and life . . . Yet, despite Bruno having the most romantic narrative voice since Humbert Humbert, he lacks that definitive trait that comes with lived-in humanity: humility. By giving us a narrator with so much passion, and so few successes in acting on it, Hale has created one of the most tragic literary heroes in recent memory . . . Their first sexual encounter is one of the most suspenseful and cringe-worthy moments I've read in recent fiction. I prayed for them to stop, and thrilled that they gave in . . . Hale is communicating something very sophisticated in how Bruno comes to learn to express himself, but not the world around him . . . We have to give Bruno-and Hale-credit for delivering a story like this through sheer force of will . . . Good for Bruno, and for Hale for delivering him to us-I'd rather have a monkey with multitudes than a human with platitudes any day."
The New Yorker
"Hale's exuberant début is the bildungsroman of Bruno, a chimp born in a zoo who forsakes his animalhood and ends up, hairless and human-nosed, imprisoned for a crime of passion. His hyperallusive, Nabokovian confession, dictated to an amanuensis, is the tale of "a first-generation immigrant to the human species," encompassing Milton, Whitman, Darwin, Diogenes, and Kafka. Along the way, Bruno becomes an experimental test subject, an Expressionist painter, a Shakespearean actor, and a murderer. He also becomes a lover-but the story doesn't stray into bestiality. (When the pair do consummate, he probes her in disbelief, as "Caravaggio's Thomas the Doubter does to the wound of the resurrected Christ.") The lyrical flourishes can become theatrical, and, toward the end, the narrative gets baggy, but Hale's relish for his subject, and his subject's relish for language, never flags."
Booklist (Starred Review)
In this account by a chimpanzee who ascends the evolutionary ladder, first-novelist Hale explores what it means to be human. Nine years into captivity after committing a murder, Bruno-24 years old, hairless, with his spine straightened by bipedal standing, and his surgically fashioned, humanoid nose-dictates his memoirs, having become proficient at speech, reading, and visual arts. His first name was given to him at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo where he was born, his second is taken by him from researcher Dr. Lydia Littlemore, who tests him and with whom he comes to share a home and a deep, and eventually sexual, love. Motivated by his love for Lydia and language, Bruno soon lives and functions as a human, becoming an assault on those who consider humans unique, and his blissful relationship with Lydia spawns hatred. Like his protagonist, Hale clearly loves language, using words with precision (likely to send readers to a dictionary) and for play, as when Lydia, when happy, "chortled up the engine" to start her car. With its exuberantly detailed sex between species and its concept that human cognizance of death leads to superstition and religion, this novel is likely to offend some readers, while others will find it holds a remarkable, riotous mirror to mankind.
Christopher Beha - New York Times Book Review

"Hale's novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical interest, that a reviewer risks making it sound ponderous or unwelcoming. So let's get this out of the way: THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE is an absolute pleasure. Much of the pleasure comes from the book's voice . . . There is a Bellovian exhuberance befitting a Chicago-born autodidact . . . There's also great pleasure in the audacity of the story itself. THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE announces that Benjamin Hale is himself a fully evolved as a writer, taking on big themes, intent on fitting the world into his work. Hale's daring is most obvious in his portrayal of the relationship between Bruno and Lydia, which eventually breaks the one sexual taboo even Nabokov wouldn't touch . . . Ultimately the point of these scenes is not to shock us but to ask what fundamentally makes us human, what differences inhere between a creature like Lydia and a creature like Bruno that disqualify the latter from the full range of human affection."

Dan Cryer - Newsday
"One very evolved human, Benjamin Hale has evoked, in his first novel, the miracle of Bruno Littlemore, the world's first talking chimpanzee . . .This chimp not only speaks English, he's as sensitive and charming, as brilliant and learned, as any human alive . . . One need only read a few pages to be swept up by the grandeur of Hale's ebullient prose . . . It's Bruno's distinct voice, more than debating points, that wins us over . . . With his primary Chicago setting, engrossing storytelling, unabashed braininess, prediliction for eccentric characters, and long, looping, wonderfully evocative sentences, Hale reminds me of no writer so much as Saul Bellow. But he's got a bold, rick-taking, off-center view of the world all his own . . Adventure tale, love story, science fiction, novel of ideas - this one's got it all."
Ron Charles - The Washington Post
"We've finally got a book to screech and howl about. Benjamin Hale's audacious first novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," is a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump up on the furniture and beat your chest . . . "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" is a brilliant, unruly brute of a book - the kind of thing Richard Powers might write while pumped up on laughing gas . . . When the novel's antics aren't making you giggle, its pathos is making you cry, and its existential predicament is always making you think. No trip to the zoo, western Africa or even the mirror will ever be the same . . . funny, sad and shocking . . . extraordinary intellectual range. . . But just when you want to stuff this chimp back in his cage, he comes up with some unforgettable new adventure, like his off-off-Broadway production of "The Tempest" that's absolutely transporting. So let Bruno run free. He's got a lot to tell us, and we've got a lot to learn."
--Jonathan Ames
"The most talented and intriguing young writer I've met in years. A writer with a capital W. . . It's like being a baseball scout in Oklahoma in the late 1940s and seeing this young kid running around centerfield, and you ask the guy next to you, 'Who's that?' And the guy says, 'I don't know, some kid named Mickey Mantle.'"
--Edward Carey
"An enormous, glorious rattlebag of a book. Benjamin Hale's extremely loud debut has echoes of the acerbic musings of Humbert Humbert and the high-pitched shrieking of Oskar Matzerath. Hale's narrator, Bruno Littlemore, is a bouncing, pleading, longing, lost, loony, bleeding, pleading, laughing, beseeching wonder."
Ron Charles - Washington Post
"We've finally got a book to screech and howl about. Benjamin Hale's audacious first novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," is a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump up on the furniture and beat your chest . . . "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" is a brilliant, unruly brute of a book - the kind of thing Richard Powers might write while pumped up on laughing gas . . . When the novel's antics aren't making you giggle, its pathos is making you cry, and its existential predicament is always making you think. No trip to the zoo, western Africa or even the mirror will ever be the same . . . funny, sad and shocking . . . extraordinary intellectual range. . . But just when you want to stuff this chimp back in his cage, he comes up with some unforgettable new adventure, like his off-off-Broadway production of "The Tempest" that's absolutely transporting. So let Bruno run free. He's got a lot to tell us, and we've got a lot to learn."
Jacob Silverman
"[This book] offers all those things we ask of our novels: rich entertainment and comedy, emotional sincerity that isn't cloying, and the ability to satisfy the immense ambition it sets for itself.

Bill Goldstein
"Completely different . . . The language, the voice of this novelist and this character, are so strong that even as outrageous and grotesque and as angry as this book is, it is totally convincing. If you ever read Frankenstein, could you really believe that the monster would talk this way? Well this is the same - you buy into this from the first page . . . It is so beautifully written. The voice of this novelist is so intelligent, so exciting, the language is so rich . . . astounding . . . If you liked the book ROOM, you'll love this book . . . I mean, this is disturbing, but you'll fall in love with it."
Booklist (starred review)
This novel holds a remarkable, riotous mirror to mankind.
--Anthony Swofford
"Benjamin Hale is a writer of rare and exciting talent. We'll be reading his books for years. Dive in."
Booklist
This novel holds a remarkable, riotous mirror to mankind.
—Jonathan Ames
"The most talented and intriguing young writer I've met in years. A writer with a capital W. . . It's like being a baseball scout in Oklahoma in the late 1940s and seeing this young kid running around centerfield, and you ask the guy next to you, 'Who's that?' And the guy says, 'I don't know, some kid named Mickey Mantle.'"
—Edward Carey
"An enormous, glorious rattlebag of a book. Benjamin Hale's extremely loud debut has echoes of the acerbic musings of Humbert Humbert and the high-pitched shrieking of Oskar Matzerath. Hale's narrator, Bruno Littlemore, is a bouncing, pleading, longing, lost, loony, bleeding, pleading, laughing, beseeching wonder."
—Anthony Swofford
"Benjamin Hale is a writer of rare and exciting talent. We'll be reading his books for years. Dive in."
From the Publisher
"The most talented and intriguing young writer I've met in years. A writer with a capital W. . . It's like being a baseball scout in Oklahoma in the late 1940s and seeing this young kid running around centerfield, and you ask the guy next to you, 'Who's that?' And the guy says, 'I don't know, some kid named Mickey Mantle.'"——Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir!, The Extra Man and the current HBO series Bored to Death"

An enormous, glorious rattlebag of a book. Benjamin Hale's extremely loud debut has echoes of the acerbic musings of Humbert Humbert and the high-pitched shrieking of Oskar Matzerath. Hale's narrator, Bruno Littlemore, is a bouncing, pleading, longing, lost, loony, bleeding, pleading, laughing, beseeching wonder."——Edward Carey, author of Observatory Mansions and Alva & Irva"

Benjamin Hale is a writer of rare and exciting talent. We'll be reading his books for years. Dive in."——Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead


"Hale's novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical interest, that a reviewer risks making it sound ponderous or unwelcoming. So let's get this out of the way: THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE is an absolute pleasure. Much of the pleasure comes from the book's voice . . . There is a Bellovian exhuberance befitting a Chicago-born autodidact . . . There's also great pleasure in the audacity of the story itself. THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE announces that Benjamin Hale is himself a fully evolved as a writer, taking on big themes, intent on fitting the world into his work. Hale's daring is most obvious in his portrayal of the relationship between Bruno and Lydia, which eventually breaks the one sexual taboo even Nabokov wouldn't touch . . . Ultimately the point of these scenes is not to shock us but to ask what fundamentally makes us human, what differences inhere between a creature like Lydia and a creature like Bruno that disqualify the latter from the full range of human affection."

Christopher Beha, New York Times Book Review
"

We've finally got a book to screech and howl about. Benjamin Hale's audacious first novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," is a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump up on the furniture and beat your chest . . . "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" is a brilliant, unruly brute of a book - the kind of thing Richard Powers might write while pumped up on laughing gas . . . When the novel's antics aren't making you giggle, its pathos is making you cry, and its existential predicament is always making you think. No trip to the zoo, western Africa or even the mirror will ever be the same . . . funny, sad and shocking . . . extraordinary intellectual range. . . But just when you want to stuff this chimp back in his cage, he comes up with some unforgettable new adventure, like his off-off-Broadway production of "The Tempest" that's absolutely transporting. So let Bruno run free. He's got a lot to tell us, and we've got a lot to learn."—Ron Charles, Washington Post
"

Hale's exuberant début is the bildungsroman of Bruno, a chimp born in a zoo who forsakes his animalhood and ends up, hairless and human-nosed, imprisoned for a crime of passion. His hyperallusive, Nabokovian confession, dictated to an amanuensis, is the tale of "a first-generation immigrant to the human species," encompassing Milton, Whitman, Darwin, Diogenes, and Kafka. Along the way, Bruno becomes an experimental test subject, an Expressionist painter, a Shakespearean actor, and a murderer. He also becomes a lover-but the story doesn't stray into bestiality. (When the pair do consummate, he probes her in disbelief, as "Caravaggio's Thomas the Doubter does to the wound of the resurrected Christ.") The lyrical flourishes can become theatrical, and, toward the end, the narrative gets baggy, but Hale's relish for his subject, and his subject's relish for language, never flags."—The New Yorker
"

Completely different . . . The language, the voice of this novelist and this character, are so strong that even as outrageous and grotesque and as angry as this book is, it is totally convincing. If you ever read Frankenstein, could you really believe that the monster would talk this way? Well this is the same - you buy into this from the first page . . . It is so beautifully written. The voice of this novelist is so intelligent, so exciting, the language is so rich . . . astounding . . . If you liked the book ROOM, you'll love this book . . . I mean, this is disturbing, but you'll fall in love with it."—Bill Goldstein, NBC's Weekend Today

This novel holds a remarkable, riotous mirror to mankind.—Booklist (starred review)"

[This book] offers all those things we ask of our novels: rich entertainment and comedy, emotional sincerity that isn't cloying, and the ability to satisfy the immense ambition it sets for itself.

Jacob Silverman, Publishers Marketplace

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780446571579
Publisher:
Grand Central Publishing
Publication date:
02/02/2011
Pages:
578
Product dimensions:
6.18(w) x 9.12(h) x 1.74(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore


By Hale, Benjamin

Twelve

Copyright © 2011 Hale, Benjamin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780446571579

Part One

… 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

I

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.



Continues...

Excerpted from The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Hale, Benjamin Copyright © 2011 by Hale, Benjamin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Dan Cryer
One very evolved human, Benjamin Hale has evoked, in his first novel, the miracle of Bruno Littlemore, the world's first talking chimpanzee . . .This chimp not only speaks English, he's as sensitive and charming, as brilliant and learned, as any human alive . . . One need only read a few pages to be swept up by the grandeur of Hale's ebullient prose . . . It's Bruno's distinct voice, more than debating points, that wins us over . . . With his primary Chicago setting, engrossing storytelling, unabashed braininess, prediliction for eccentric characters, and long, looping, wonderfully evocative sentences, Hale reminds me of no writer so much as Saul Bellow. But he's got a bold, rick-taking, off-center view of the world all his own . . Adventure tale, love story, science fiction, novel of ideas - this one's got it all.
— Newsday
Christopher Beha
Hale's novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical interest, that a reviewer risks making it sound ponderous or unwelcoming. So let's get this out of the way: THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE is an absolute pleasure. Much of the pleasure comes from the book's voice . . . There is a Bellovian exhuberance befitting a Chicago-born autodidact . . . There's also great pleasure in the audacity of the story itself. THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE announces that Benjamin Hale is himself a fully evolved as a writer, taking on big themes, intent on fitting the world into his work. Hale's daring is most obvious in his portrayal of the relationship between Bruno and Lydia, which eventually breaks the one sexual taboo even Nabokov wouldn't touch . . . Ultimately the point of these scenes is not to shock us but to ask what fundamentally makes us human, what differences inhere between a creature like Lydia and a creature like Bruno that disqualify the latter from the full range of human affection.

New York Times Book Review

Ron Charles
We've finally got a book to screech and howl about. Benjamin Hale's audacious first novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," is a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump up on the furniture and beat your chest . . . "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" is a brilliant, unruly brute of a book - the kind of thing Richard Powers might write while pumped up on laughing gas . . . When the novel's antics aren't making you giggle, its pathos is making you cry, and its existential predicament is always making you think. No trip to the zoo, western Africa or even the mirror will ever be the same . . . funny, sad and shocking . . . extraordinary intellectual range. . . But just when you want to stuff this chimp back in his cage, he comes up with some unforgettable new adventure, like his off-off-Broadway production of "The Tempest" that's absolutely transporting. So let Bruno run free. He's got a lot to tell us, and we've got a lot to learn.
— The Washington Post

Meet the Author

Benjamin Hale is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he received a Provost's Fellowship to complete his novel, which also went on to win a Michener-Copernicus Award. He has been a night shift baker, a security guard, a trompe l'oeil painter, a pizza deliverer, a cartoonist, an illustrator and a technical writer. He grew up in Colorado and now lives in New York.

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The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 64 reviews.
crazyladyteacher More than 1 year ago
When I initially started reading this book, I was floored by how intelligent I am. I understood almost all of Hale's big words (great use of a thesaurus). I found Bruno to be an interesting character, and I could even hear him speaking to me. But after awhile, it seemed as if the storyline was going absolutely nowhere. Yes, the foreshadowing told us what was going to happen, but the overdevelopment about every little aspect of Bruno's life was becoming tedious. By the time I got to Bruno's sexual arousal over Lydia while she was passed out on sleeping pills, I had had enough.
Heavensent1 More than 1 year ago
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a highly intelligent and provocative piece of literature that is not for the faint of heart. Its pages are filled with wit, humor, sadness, mortification and ingenuity. The imagery between Darwinism and Creationism is detailed in this highly imaginative tale. Bruno Littlemore, the narrator of the story, is a chimpanzee who has learned the ability to communicate, not with his hands, but with his voice. He is articulate, knowledgeable and extremely well-read on an academic level while maintaining his animalistic tendencies. Bruno is in love with all things human and after being "rescued" from the zoo by Dr. Lydia Littlemore, he comes to realize that he could never go back to that kind of life. After spending many years as a test subject for a research department at the University of Chicago, Bruno goes to live with Lydia and they fall in love. Their life borders on the idyllic and for years they grow together, under the radar, until the headaches that Lydia suffers from become unbearable. After heading back to the "real" world, their lives begin to unravel and Bruno is forced to flee for his life. He meets many interesting characters along his journey, who help to shape and mold him to be a better "person". However, all things come full circle and Bruno decides to go back to his past in order to correct all the wrongs done to him. Bruno shares with us his passions, his loves, his reasons for being and the similarties between his species and humans. Even though there were a few passages that will stay with me forever, I loved reading his story and for a first time author, Benjamin Hale, has written a remarkable piece that I would recommend to others to read. It has moderate to heavy expletives, scenes of morbid violence and sexual intimacies.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is nothing short of a masterpiece. The language is fluid, specific, and profound. The concepts are controversial, imaginative, and beautiful. Told from the first-person perspective of Bruno himself, this book is a true work of art. If you enjoy contemporary literature I promise this book will rise to the top of your list before you even finish it. If it does not win you over with its pure creative intelligence (which it will) the humanity of the story is sure to send you through a whirlwind. I personally enjoy authors such as Tom Robbins, Chuck Palahniuk, Haruki Murakami and Edward Albee (playwright). Benjamin Hale effortlessly finds himself amongst these great literary talents in my eyes. The book is great.
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Aceskeno More than 1 year ago
An astonishing read! It is not for everyone with the long descriptive passages and classical references. Since I grew up in Chicago near the Lincoln Park Zoo it was especially nostalgic for me. Aside from that the plot moved along smoothly but at a leisurely pace. It could have been shortened, but the mood would have suffered. If you are looking for an exceptional, thought-provoking novel, read a few pages. That will set the tone for the whole book. I was hooked on the first page!
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