In brief: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is the fictional memoir of a chimpanzee. Read that again if you like, I’ll give you a sec…
… Yup, the titular protagonist is a narrator of the arboreal variety; a Pan troglodytes; a monkey! The subject of an unprecedentedly successful linguistic science experiment, Bruno can not only talk but acquires an eloquence and mellifluousness of language most writers could only dream of possessing. He’s a precocious and sassy narrator, but his flippancy of style is tempered by comic phrasing and delivery; thus rather than being an overbearing and pretentious storyteller, Bruno is almost Wildean in his erudition – redolent of Humbert Humbert or even Patrick Bateman. This stylistic convergence of humour with gravitas is mirrored in the book’s plot, which skilfully balances the scales of Comedy and Tragedy in equal measure, an approach that offers an insight into the novel’s wide-ranging and myriad influences. Bruno’s life story is at times hysterically funny and at others so marred by the deepest heartbreak and despair that I almost stopped reading out of fear that, by pressing on, I would make something horrible happen. But most significantly for a novel of this length, the book is just relentlessly interesting, a fact entirely down to Benjamin Hale’s range and dexterity as a writer. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is an utterly, utterly amazing book. And, while I’m tempted to leave my review at that, I know you readers are a discerning bunch, so here goes…
The crux of the novel is a kind of 21st Century re-imagining of the ancient Greek philosophical problem Theseus’ Ship (or ‘Trigger’s Broom’, if you prefer…), in this instance one might opt for the moniker ‘Hale’s Monkey’, namely: if Bruno replaces all of his constituent ‘chimpness’ with human attributes (language, clothes, physical changes (via plastic surgery), behaviour, creativity etc. etc.) has he become a human? It’s a problem particularly prevalent in science-fiction robot sagas (notably Isaac Asimov’s The Positronic Man or I, Robot , Alastair Reynolds’ House of Suns or even Steven Spielberg’s A.I.) and, to a lesser extent, Disney’s Pinocchio (an obvious and oft-cited inspiration); and while Hale is liberal with his application of canonical quotations, it’s a shame that the book doesn’t give a more knowing nod-of-the-head to the sources of what is essentially a well-established and significant trope of sci-fi literature. But this is a minor niggle, an itch the sci-fi snob in me rarely sees scratched. Bruno’s heuristic to the problem of classification is a linguistic imperative that places language as the predominant condition required for a definition of humanity. All of Bruno’s physical/behavioural adaptations are insignificant next to his ability to speak; language is used as the yardstick to differentiate him from all other animals and bring him closer to this much longed-for state of humanity, and with it: acceptance. As far as Bruno is concerned: he can speak, and is therefore a man.
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore’s most striking influence, then, is the continental tradition of linguistic philosophy, most notably the sign/signified dichotomy of Saussure and Lacan. The novel frequently employs the lexicon of such theories (expect to read the words ‘referent’, ‘signifier’, ‘semiotics’ etc. a lot) while simultaneously railing against the notions of generative grammar (one memorable sequence satirises Noam Chomsky as the evil imp ‘The Gnome Chompy’, a result of Bruno hilariously miss-hearing the linguist’s name during his infancy). But don’t be put-off; it’s not as dense as I’m making it sound; these ideas are explored using familiar mytho-poetic motifs, such as the stories of the Garden of Eden and the aforementioned Pinocchio, and although this simplifies the argument by effectively reducing it to a folkloric comparative, it does give an easy way-in for the reader unfamiliar with the purer linguistic theories. Bruno compares his pre-linguistic childhood to the pre-lapsarian Adam, but characteristic of our cheeky narrator, he soon manages to pervert this comparison to better suit his own circumstances. In a satisfying inversion of religious moralising, Bruno’s linguistic awakening isn’t presented as any kind of Fall; rather, he insists that language is a gift that’s worth the loss of innocence: “Eden was sacrificed not for the pleasure of a fruit, but for the pleasure of the word”. It’s not a perfect analogy: Bruno’s acquisition of language is the slow and painstaking process of the dedicated autodidact, rather than any kind of supernatural, forbidden-fruit type of instantaneous revelation. But for the most part the comparison is solid; one of the scientists involved in the research even fulfils the villainous role of the ‘Satan’ archetype. Unsurprisingly, Paradise Lost bleeds through the pages of this book, and is even quoted in epitaph.
One of the ways in which our non-human narrator tries to convince the reader of his humanity is to cram the narrative with hundreds of literary references. Rather than being a conceited attempt to show-off his reading, this becomes a desperate and incredibly moving plea for understanding and acceptance, as literature and language are Bruno’s most cogent tools in his quest to be taken seriously. Literature becomes the structure that Bruno regards as most significant in distinguishing himself from all other animals, and his narrative style is characterised by a kind of literary appropriation that takes the form of direct but non-attributed quotations. My copy is now overspread with scrawly marginalia, and I made a game of trying to identify as many as possible, for eg: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” (T.S. Eliot), “I am large, I contain multitudes” (Walt Whitman), “Are they the things of this world, or just their shadows?” (Plato),“a son, untimely ripped from her womb” (Shakespeare (kinda)) etc. etc. Many more I noted, but I imagine the vast majority of them escaped my immediate frame of reference. You’d have to be very well-read to find them all!
This does, however, bring a level of artifice to the narration which somewhat undermines Bruno’s agenda. There’s a definite disconnect between Bruno’s desire to convince us of his humanity, and the unreliability of both his prose and himself as narrator. Crucially, the reader is at a multi-layered remove from the actual events described. These ‘memoirs’ are based on some notes written by the fictional ‘Gwen’ and originally dictated by Bruno some twenty years after the fact. Compounding this is Gewn’s implied questioning of the memoirs’ accuracy and Bruno’s own constant admissions of poetic exaggeration, exclusion, erratic memory and bias. There are many instances, for example, in which characters don’t seem at all perturbed to encounter an up-right walking, talking chimpanzee: a problem which can be easily dismissed as an idiosyncrasy/embellishment of Bruno’s narration, rather than a failing of Benjamin Hale as a writer. This has the double-edged-sword effect of drawing the reader’s attention to the improbability of the events described (this is, after all, a book narrated by a monkey), while simultaneously protecting the writer from accusations of unrealistic writing and narrative contradiction. But I guess for such an ardent sci-fi fan as myself, it would be more than a little disingenuous to accuse a book of being unrealistic.
Yet even in this, it’s very difficult to draw any criticisms against the book, because so much of it feels like a game being played with the reader by Bruno (and by extension, Hale). The novel is full of trickery, doubles, red-herrings and theatre; there’s even a brilliant, brilliant re-creation of Falstaff, and the most beautiful imagining of The Tempest I’ve ever encountered. The story of Lydia (Bruno’s lover), for example, is the direct opposite of Bruno’s own; a kind of inverse parallel that serves to hubristically tear the lovers apart when they should be moving together at their closest. Lydia suffers a tumour-related linguistic aphasia, which sees her lose the ability to speak just as Bruno’s language is flourishing; it’s a moving yet satisfying double to Bruno’s story. Synthesising these more figurative notions of doubling with the physical-world of the novel is a preoccupation with mirrors and reflections. When Bruno has a nose-job, he spends many, many (many) hours staring at this post-Voldemort reflection in a bathroom mirror: a practice at once abstract and relatable, as Bruno simultaneously criticises human behaviour (in this instance, vanity) while unwittingly engaging in said behaviour himself. This convergence of the figurative with the literal is perhaps The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore’s most striking achievement.
And no review of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore would be complete without at least a passing mention of all the intra-species sex that runs rampant through the novel. Lydia is a human, Bruno a monkey: they have sex. My initial reaction was probably the same as most people’s, a kinda dismissive “that’s gross!” – but I’d beg you to reserve judgement until you’ve read it. The sex is described using the language of high Romance, and terms like ‘beastiality’ or ‘zoophilia’ really don’t seem fit for purpose. However, you really do have to be a moral relativist with this, and if you’re not willing, then maybe this book’s not for you. Occasionally the sexual language falls into the trap of needless gratuity, but more often than not it is tender, and convinces to the extent that you wonder why you ever questioned the union in the first place. Stick with it.
I’ve not talked much about the plot because, frankly, the way this story is told is significantly more interesting than the narrative itself – but this isn’t any kind of criticism: equally, a story of this complexity is almost impossible to describe without extensive spoilers, and this coloured my approach as well. As things stand, I hope I’ve managed to give at least a half-decent picture of this extraordinary book. I usually try not to resort to the clichéd hyperbole of book geekdom: but I devoured this novel, and encourage you to do the same. It’s not perfect, and some of the visual metaphors are a tad cringe-worthy (such as a human toddler and a chimp baby pressing their hands together against a dividing glass window at the zoo), but you can count the number of such gaffs on one hand, which is pretty darn good considering how long this book is.
By far the most incredible thing about the novel, however, is that it hasn’t made a bigger splash. Published several months ago, it has “promptly sunk without a ripple”, and I cannot understand why. I despair to think that just because a book is long and difficult that it’s being ignored. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore deserves more attention, and if it weren’t such a naff thing to do, I’d pester every book-blogger I know until they review it themselves. Read it. Give it time and patience. It is long and it is challenging, but it’s also beautiful and rewarding. A quiet and unassuming masterpiece; once it has it’s small tendrils around your mind and heart, it never lets go.