Monday, April 25, 2011

Hale's "Bruno": Not just another ape novel

If you go to the University of Iowa Main Library and read through the 2008 thesis Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate Benjamin Hale submitted for his MFA, you'll see some flashes of the narrative power Hale unleashes in his debut novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" (Twelve, 2011).

You'll read a long-titled novella -- "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" -- that tells the story of characters who are overwhelmed by the sound and fury of their lives. You'll see Hale's fondness for weaving literary allusions -- especially direct biblical quotes -- into inappropriate situations. You'll see characters who can look beyond their immediate problems, turn their gaze to the nighttime sky and imagine the awe that filled their ancestors long ago.

And, yes, you'll read a lot of descriptions of sex acts -- sometimes disturbing, sometimes violent and sometimes unwanted.

But you won't hear the voice of Bruno Littlemore, the chimpanzee narrator of Hale's exhilarating new novel. You won't experience the 578 pages of first-person narration from a character critics are comparing to Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert ("Lolita"), Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy ("Portnoy's Complaint") or the nameless narrator of Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man."

"Bruno was always a separate entity from the rest of my writing," Hale said in a phone interview Friday. "The book, the character and the voice were all the same thing. It was a persona that was a lot of fun to slip into."

Hale said the premise for the novel "slowly congealed." He was inspired largely by Franz Kafka's story, "A Report for an Academy," in which an ape named Red Peter presents a scientific paper on how he acquired language and became a 19th-century gentleman of letters. Hale wanted to see if he could write a book-length homage to Kafka's short character sketch.

Toward the end of his first semester in the Workshop, Hale had an "initial gush of inspiration" and wrote what now is the first 50 pages of the novel over a two-week period. He then wrote the last chapter of the novel and then spent the next three years trying to tie those two points together.

Although inspired by the Kafka story, Hale become aware of other talking ape novels over the course of writing: From John Collier's "His Monkey Wife" (1930), to Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael" (1992), to Will Self's "Great Apes" (1997), to Sara Gruen's "Ape House" (2010), to Laurence Gonzales' "Lucy" (2010).

Hale said he refused -- and still refuses -- to read those novels for fear he might become too influenced ("even retroactively") by them.

Instead, the first-time novelist immersed himself in research about the history of ape language studies. And that research included many trips to Great Ape Trust in Des Moines and long conversations with the few scientists who actually are involved in studies about animal consciousness.

As a result of all this hard work, the 27-year-old Hale was able to take the "absurd premise" that Kafka had worked over in just a few pages and stretch it into a "feast of narrative" about growing up in America in the 1980s and 1990s. The world of Bruno Littlemore a cartoonish world à la Dickens and Pynchon, but one that grows more disturbingly real over the course of the novel. And Hale manages to keep his long, divergent storyline in check through the contrast between Bruno's narcissism, charisma, overblown erudition and utter cluelessness.

The novel received a lot of pre-publication hype because of concerns over the complicated sexual and domestic relationship that develops between Bruno and Lydia Littlemore, the female scientist who teaches Bruno language and from whom he takes his last name. But Hale has worked hard to ensure that the relationship -- as well as the fits of violence that the encultured Bruno still remains capable of -- comes across as "natural" and "necessary" to the story.

In the end, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" tells us much less about the mystery of animal consciousness and much more about what it means to be human.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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