Benjamin Hale's audacious first novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, is a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump onto the furniture and beat your chest. Driven by the "very human desire for philosophical immortality," the loquacious narrator, Bruno, a talking chimpanzee, tells his life story to a researcher in a lab where he's being held for murder. "I can't say I blame them," he says, "for wanting to study me. I am interesting." What follows for hundreds of pages is the funny, sad and shocking tale of an animal ashamed and proud of his own humanity.
Bruno doesn't know why he learns so quickly — "My father never quite lost his touch of aboriginal uncouthness" — but under the tutelage of an autistic janitor and a very liberal-minded cognitive psychologist named Lydia Littlemore, he emerges from his "prelapsarian nudity" into conscious thought. The miraculous transformation of awakening into words is a process few of us remember, but Bruno conveys its euphoria and despair.
Linguistics may be the most interesting and prevalent theme of this novel, but its salacious subplot will attract more attention. A conflict with her research supervisor inspires Lydia to take Bruno home, and soon the two of them are sleeping together — "like Anna and Vronsky." Though candor sometimes encourages Bruno to "stray beyond the parameters of good taste," his interaction with Lydia is convincingly portrayed as a loving, tender relationship.
There's something peevish about asking an ape who can quote Whitman — "Do I digress? Very well, then, I digress. I am large, I contain multitudes" — to wrap things up, but Bruno's adventures sometimes have the feel of a first-time author embarking on the trip of a lifetime and determined to cram everything into his van. But just when you want to stuff this chimp back into his cage, he comes up with some new adventure, such as his off-off-Broadway production of The Tempest. So let Bruno run free. He's got a lot to tell us, and we've got a lot to learn.