Book Review: In “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,” Benjamin Hale Monkeys Around

Mainstream science says that monkeys can’t learn language. The discredited field of primate language acquisition says that maybe they can,

Mainstream science says that monkeys can’t learn language. The discredited field of primate language acquisition says that maybe they can, and here are some experiments to prove it. In one, Koko the gorilla used sign language to participate in a Q&A on AOL chat (AOL: “What does she eat for dinner?” Koko: “Candy hurry … candy”). And the chimp Kanzi is today communicating by “lexigram board” with his owner, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who is known to co-credit chimps on her scientific papers.

The major objection to such research is that while monkeys may be able to communicate–to tell others about a nearby predator, say–they don’t have the grammar necessary for true language, so they can’t talk about a predator they saw yesterday. There’s also the question of why an animal with the capacity for language, a huge evolutionary advantage, would never think of using it.

In Benjamin Hale’s debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, these objections are all overturned. Our narrator, Bruno, is the first chimp in history to learn fully human language. At age 25, he is doing time for a murder conviction at one of those prisons where the inmates drink wine and dictate their memoirs. (Humbert Humbert is in the cell next door.) Evolution is Bruno’s story in his own words.

Bruno spends his early years with the chimps in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, but he immediately knows he’s an outsider. “I never felt like I quite belonged to the same species as my mother,” he says. “I have no desire to have sex with other chimps.” Instead, he wants humans.

The one he falls for is Lydia Littlemore, an attractive cognitive psychologist with a specialty in chimp language acquisition. Lydia takes an interest in Bruno after she overhears him pronounce his own name. Immediately, she sees a future for her research, and Bruno sees in Lydia the promise of sex and freedom. She takes him home to live with her. Soon, they’re lovers.

The 200 pages that take us here are mostly coherent, and have a little momentum. The next 400 lose it. Like Ms. Savage-Rumbaugh herself, who lets Kanzi direct her on their walks through the forest, Mr. Hale is led hither and yon by a crazy monkey. After Bruno and Lydia start sleeping together, developments come thick and fast. Bruno becomes a painter; goes berserk at his art opening; finds himself in hot water after rumors start swirling about him and Lydia; moves to a ranch in Colorado run by primate-loving swingers; moves to the Hudson Valley after the swingers proposition Lydia; escapes to New York City; meets an unemployed Shakespearean actor named Leon; puts on a production of The Tempest with Leon in which–of course–Bruno plays Caliban; gets a nose job; and, at last, all other possibilities exhausted, kills a man. The story occasionally bores even the author himself, who writes of the two years at the swingers’ ranch, “the days and months stretched on without much incident.”

So it’s obvious that what really interests Mr. Hale isn’t his grandiose monkey’s picaresque adventures. What interests him is the fact that his monkey knows language. And this, in the abstract, is a theme with plenty of potential. In Mr. Hale’s execution, though, it’s trying, because history’s first language-using chimp has somehow acquired a pompous, old-fashioned, sentimental strain of language.

Bruno is the kind of narrator who in lieu of saying “a year passed,” says “the wheel of the seasons had made a full revolution”; the kind of narrator who–in the same chapter–calls the touch of ice “so cold that it spun the wheel of pain a full revolution,” not realizing that he’s repeating himself (and that he really means “half revolution”).

Here he is figuring out how to have sex with a sleeping Lydia: “I continue to lap at her yonic mollusk. … Then I get a really good idea. My penis seems to have an intense desire to be put into something, and this slippery feverish envelope of wet flesh seems to have an intense desire to have something put in it. Aha! Thus I make the Great Leap. … I jab blindly at the area in question, until I am received–the mouth of this great fish swallows me up.” We almost recognize this tone, because it’s aspiring to the Swiftian sound of someone discovering for the first time things that we long ago forgot we had to learn.

Evolution is full of these descriptions of the familiar made strange, and it should be. After all, Bruno is the first of his species to join human society. Sometimes Mr. Hale hits the mark, as when Bruno observes matter-of-factly that “becoming human is a process of equal parts enlightenment and imprinting your brain with taboos.”

Far more often, though, he fires wide. This is especially true when Bruno is opining on his favorite topic–what it feels like to have learned language in the first place. He refutes Noam Chomsky by writing that “his misunderstanding was to underestimate language’s connections to love, to beauty, to pure awe of the universe.” He praises Milton’s Satan for “demonic rhetoric, Satanic language!” On many occasions, he offers cryptic aphorisms like “the tower of Babel is not vertical, but horizontal,” and “every word is a lie.” And when chapter 50 rolls around, he even makes something of the L at the top of the page: “L is for laughter,” he writes. “L is for literature. L is for love. L is for life. L is for language.”

This kind of writing is what ultimately brings Evolution to the brink of dissolving in its own preoccupations, because Bruno’s ideas about language are mostly just bombast. In the end, we’re impressed by Mr. Hale’s invention but we’re left wanting something that feels more emotionally engaged. Lydia, who could have provided the core that’s missing, is especially neglected as a character. We’re told twice that she has a dead husband and son in her past, but we learn nothing about them. A lesbian affair glides off the page in a similar way, barely leaving a mark, because Bruno is untroubled by his lover taking a lover. He cares only for the way he uses language; he has nothing left over for anyone else.

My own suspicion is that Mr. Hale is a much better writer than Bruno lets him be. I say this because the most moving sentence in the book isn’t a riff on Paradise Lost or a rant about the difficulty of casting Woyzeck, but a single repeated word that, in Mr. Hale’s hands, becomes heartbreaking. The sentence comes after a stroke has robbed Lydia of her language and she’s left to communicate only in fragments. While sitting with Bruno at her small kitchen table, she asks him to pass the saltshaker by pointing to it, looking at him, saying, “the … the … the … the …”

Finally, I thought. Some real human language. Book Review: In “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,” Benjamin Hale Monkeys Around