Aping His Inferiors

Susan Kuklin/Photo Researchers, Inc.
Nim Chimpsky speaking in sign language with one of his teachers, Joyce Butler, 1970s

It has been argued that a monkey banging away randomly at a typewriter long enough would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Of course, it’s entirely possible that he would first come up with Pierre Boulle’s 1963 pulp classic Planet of the Apes, and perhaps pause to scratch his forehead over this monologue by an interstellar human explorer:

Of what is our literature made? Masterpieces?… No. But once an original book has been written—and no more than one or two appear in a century—men of letters imitate it, that’s to say they copy it so that hundreds of thousands of books are published on exactly the same theme, with slightly different titles and modified phraseology. This should be able to be achieved by monkeys, who are essentially imitators, provided of course they are able to make use of language.

That provision is a big one, as anybody who wades into the contentious field of animal language research soon discovers. But this hasn’t stopped talking apes from becoming a staple of modern literature, from Kafka’s “Report to an Academy,” delivered by a distinguished captive ape named Rotpeter, to Sara Gruen’s recent best-seller Ape House, a screwball riff on bonobo language research and reality TV. Then again, you could also say that talking apes define literature. From the Bible to The Da Vinci Code, what is the Western canon but the grandiloquent, self-obsessed babblings of puffed-up hairless primates?

Or so might argue Bruno Littlemore, the narrator and hero of Benjamin Hale’s ambitious first novel. Bruno is the son of Rotpeter—only in this case, the name belongs not to Kafka’s tuxedo-wearing, wine-sipping melancholic but to the star attraction at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, a brutish captive who entertains visitors by cadging cigarettes and raping the occasional frog. Bruno, a more sensitive type, is whisked away at age two to a lab at the University of Chicago, where his unusual intelligence earns him a spot in a controversial language experiment. The results are eventually published in the journal Nature, under the title “The BRUNO Project”—short for “Behavioral Rearing into Ultroneous Nounenal Ontogensis.” The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is Bruno’s own bitter, boastful, bombastic, and no less ponderously intellectual riposte, dictated some twenty-five years later from a sanctuary where he has been imprisoned for murder.

Bruno is an American ape, Chicago born—and if you don’t hear the affinity between this “first-generation immigrant to the human species” and Augie March, Alexander Portnoy, and all the other lusty, fast-talking strivers of postwar American literature, then you haven’t spent as much time in the libraries of Hyde Park as he has. Bruno has the autodidact’s fondness for the ostentatious literary reference, and never simply suffers insomnia when the “red-eyed monster of sleeplessness” can drive Hypnos from his bed. In the first forty pages…

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