The huge publicity about the evidence for mating between “modern” Homo sapiens and Neandertals shows me that people are fascinated with inter-specific (or inter-subspecific) love. After all, isn’t that what King Kong was about? Sunday’s New York Times reviews another Kongish book, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,by Benjamin Hale.
As related by reviewer Christopher Beha, the plot seems bizarre. The narrator, Bruno Littlemore, isn’t human:
Specifically, he is a chimpanzee, raised in the primate house at the Lincoln Park Zoo and then, after his unusual intelligence is discovered, in the University of Chicago’s Behavioral Biology Laboratory. There he learns the ways and eventually the words of Homo sapiens, beginning with the nod, the head shake and the wave. “With these three signs,” Bruno notes, “you can say to anyone yes, no, harm, no harm, hello and goodbye. Add to these the smile, the frown and the finger point, and you’re practically already in basic-human-social-interaction business.”
At our university! The genius ape falls in love with his keeper, primatologist Lydia Littlemore, which begins a tempestuous affair that includes sexual congress between woman and chimp. Apparently, though, salaciousness is not the point here:
And the depictions of interspecies love are certainly discomfiting, but not for the reasons you might imagine. 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. In a twist that sounds heavy-handed when summarized but is expertly managed, Lydia suffers an illness that leaves her helpless and aphasic, reduced to her animal self, making the differences between the two seem even more superficial, and their need for each other even more moving.
Well, maybe. Despite Beha’s positive review, I’m not running to the bookstore for this one.
In fact, Hale’s novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical and literary 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 its pleasure comes from the book’s voice. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” Humbert tells us, and Bruno certainly obliges.
Perhaps someone who’s read this book can report back.