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The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore [Hardcover]

Benjamin Hale
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Feb. 2 2011
Bruno Littlemore is quite unlike any chimpanzee in the world. Precocious, self-conscious and preternaturally gifted, young Bruno, born and raised in a habitat at the local zoo, falls under the care of a university primatologist named Lydia Littlemore. Learning of Bruno's ability to speak, Lydia takes Bruno into her home to oversee his education and nurture his passion for painting. But for all of his gifts, the chimpanzee has a rough time caging his more primal urges. His untimely outbursts ultimately cost Lydia her job, and send the unlikely pair on the road in what proves to be one of the most unforgettable journeys -- and most affecting love stories -- in recent literature. Like its protagonist, this novel is big, loud, abrasive, witty, perverse, earnest and amazingly accomplished. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore goes beyond satire by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human -- to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.

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Amazon Best of the Month, February 2011: From the first page of Benjamin Hale's exquisite novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Hale’s linguistic talent locks the reader into their seat and sends them ticking up the roller coaster ride of Bruno Littlemore’s life. An unlikely narrator, Bruno is a chimpanzee trying to become a man--a process he sees as “equal parts enlightenment and imprinting your brain with taboos.” Bruno acquires a fervent love of language--and of primatologist Lydia Littlemore, with whom he develops a deep (and, yes, sexual) relationship until she falls ill. Comic relief comes in the form of Leon, a boisterous subway thespian, who introduces Bruno to the stage shortly before a murderous transgression results in Bruno’s return to captivity. With Bruno Littlemore, Hale has crafted a truly original narrator, holding a mirror on humanity with a razor-like precision that makes this stunning novel one readers will want to discuss the minute they turn the last page.--Seira Wilson

Review

In this account by a chimpanzee who ascends the evolutionary ladder, first-novelist Hale explores what it means to be human. Nine years into captivity after committing a murder, Bruno-24 years old, hairless, with his spine straightened by bipedal standing, and his surgically fashioned, humanoid nose-dictates his memoirs, having become proficient at speech, reading, and visual arts. His first name was given to him at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo where he was born, his second is taken by him from researcher Dr. Lydia Littlemore, who tests him and with whom he comes to share a home and a deep, and eventually sexual, love. Motivated by his love for Lydia and language, Bruno soon lives and functions as a human, becoming an assault on those who consider humans unique, and his blissful relationship with Lydia spawns hatred. Like his protagonist, Hale clearly loves language, using words with precision (likely to send readers to a dictionary) and for play, as when Lydia, when happy, "chortled up the engine" to start her car. With its exuberantly detailed sex between species and its concept that human cognizance of death leads to superstition and religion, this novel is likely to offend some readers, while others will find it holds a remarkable, riotous mirror to mankind. (Booklist (Starred Review))

"It may take a million monkeys clacking into infinity on a million Remingtons to re-create the works of Shakespeare, but it takes only one literate, hyperintelligent chimpanzee to narrate The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, a stunning debut novel . . . Making your main character a talking ape - and one who engages in a romantic liaison with a human being, no less - is ambitious, to say the least. But from the first page, it is clear that Bruno is more than mere literary gimmickry; he is fascinating and fully formed. You learn as much by what he withholds as by what he provides, and he withholds a lot. Since he's a defensive and unreliable narrator with an unorthodox sexual predilection, the easy comparison point for Bruno is Lolita's Humbert Humbert, but he calls to mind that book's author just as readily. Like Nabokov, he is a late adopter of English who throws himself wholly into the language, exploring its less-visited gems - from ''ort'' to ''trichotillomania'' - and obsessing over syntax and signifiers . . . Where the novel should be offensive, it is often tender, and where it should be risible, it is genuinely funny. . . Despite his unlikely erudition, Bruno is by turns fragile, mercurial, spiteful, narcissistic, and lost. All of which, even more than his gift of speech, just makes him that much more human." (Entertainment Weekly)

"Hale's novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical 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 the pleasure comes from the book's voice . . . There is a Bellovian exhuberance befitting a Chicago-born autodidact . . . There's also great pleasure in the audacity of the story itself. THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE announces that Benjamin Hale is himself a fully evolved as a writer, taking on big themes, intent on fitting the world into his work. Hale's daring is most obvious in his portrayal of the relationship between Bruno and Lydia, which eventually breaks the one sexual taboo even Nabokov wouldn't touch . . . 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." (New York Times Book Review Christopher Beha)

"One very evolved human, Benjamin Hale has evoked, in his first novel, the miracle of Bruno Littlemore, the world's first talking chimpanzee . . .This chimp not only speaks English, he's as sensitive and charming, as brilliant and learned, as any human alive . . . One need only read a few pages to be swept up by the grandeur of Hale's ebullient prose . . . It's Bruno's distinct voice, more than debating points, that wins us over . . . With his primary Chicago setting, engrossing storytelling, unabashed braininess, prediliction for eccentric characters, and long, looping, wonderfully evocative sentences, Hale reminds me of no writer so much as Saul Bellow. But he's got a bold, rick-taking, off-center view of the world all his own . . Adventure tale, love story, science fiction, novel of ideas - this one's got it all." (Newsday Dan Cryer)

"Bruno Littlemore is one of the most outrageous, vivid characters to populate a page in American fiction in a long time. . . . It's not only a roaring good tale, it's a wonderful musing on the nature of humanness and our relationship to the other species with which we share the planet . . . Hale's sense of humor is often ribald, and the human characters Bruno encounters during his adventures are richly drawn and often eccentric. The descriptions are clearly informed by a deep fondness, and that is the overriding tone of Bruno's narrative: love." (The Baton Rouge Advocate)

"Imagine, for a moment, a future in which animals are accorded the same rights as humans, a society in which cattle ranchers, research scientists and pet owners are regarded with an antipathy we now reserve for eugenicists and slave traders. In the graduate literature seminars of this future, Benjamin Hale's debut novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," would be hailed as a brave and visionary work of genius . . . This interspecies coming-of-age story - in which a chimpanzee acquires language and attempts to make his way through human society - would be taught alongside "Animal Farm," the works of Temple Grandin and JM Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello. For readers of the present day, THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE offers a touching and quirky story of identity formation, a brash, glittering, engaging yarn that pushes past opposable thumbs, universal grammar and bipedal ambulation to the pulsing heart of our fair species. The novel's narrator and semi-reluctant hero announces himself with a flourish . . . Erudite and affected, bitter, brilliant and lonely, Bruno's narrative voice self-consciously echoes many of the 20th century's most memorable narrators . . . THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE is a major accomplishment. A lively page-turner that asks the big questions head on and doesn't shy away from controversy, Hale's first novel is a noisy, audacious and promising debut." (San Francisco Chronicle)

"We've finally got a book to screech and howl about. Benjamin Hale's audacious first novel, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," is a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump up on the furniture and beat your chest . . . "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" is a brilliant, unruly brute of a book - the kind of thing Richard Powers might write while pumped up on laughing gas . . . When the novel's antics aren't making you giggle, its pathos is making you cry, and its existential predicament is always making you think. No trip to the zoo, western Africa or even the mirror will ever be the same . . . funny, sad and shocking . . . extraordinary intellectual range. . . But just when you want to stuff this chimp back in his cage, he comes up with some unforgettable new adventure, like his off-off-Broadway production of "The Tempest" that's absolutely transporting. So let Bruno run free. He's got a lot to tell us, and we've got a lot to learn." (The Washington Post Ron Charles)

"This is not a book for the squeamish. There is bestiality, and rape, and what one might consider an incestuous relationship. Let's acknowledge that upfront, but then move on. If you let this be an excuse for not reading the book, you're missing out on one of the more effusive and unrestrained works of fiction in years . . . It's Bruno's voice that gives this novel the complexity and life it deserves. His stories, although not always reliable, are always abundantly full of the mysteries of humanity." (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)

"Ambitious . . . it throbs with energy and boils with passion as it expresses a dark vision of our essential nature that strikes uncomfortably home." (Los Angeles Times)

"Hale's exuberant début is the bildungsroman of Bruno, a chimp born in a zoo who forsakes his animalhood and ends up, hairless and human-nosed, imprisoned for a crime of passion. His hyperallusive, Nabokovian confession, dictated to an amanuensis, is the tale of "a first-generation immigrant to the human species," encompassing Milton, Whitman, Darwin, Diogenes, and Kafka. Along the way, Bruno becomes an experimental test subject, an Expressionist painter, a Shakespearean actor, and a murderer. He also becomes a lover-but the story doesn't stray into bestiality. (When the pair do consummate, he probes her in disbelief, as "Caravaggio's Thomas the Doubter does to the wound of the resurrected Christ.") The lyrical flourishes can become theatrical, and, toward the end, the narrative gets baggy, but Hale's relish for his subject, and his subject's relish for language, never flags." (The New Yorker, In Brief)

"Brilliant. It's a fantastic concept, that something that shares so much of our DNA can have something to say. The book is worth a read for the narrative voice alone-that of Bruno the chimp-who is erudite, arrogant, and more than a bit confused by the emotions humans take for granted." (Newsweek's "Bookbag" feature Jodi Picoult)

Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Bruno Littlemore is a chimp, who narrates this novel. He is extremely intelligent, and the book is beautifully written. It is very dark, and is not for the faint of heart in the least -- there is much violence, sexual content, even a rape and beastiality.

Despite the wonderful language hidden within the novel, the book was easy to begin, but difficult to finish. Bruno is an interesting character that you empathize with, but as his life stretches far and wide, so do the boundaries of the reader's imagination, and not in a good way. It's hard to believe that Bruno would appear so human-like, that people would not know he is a chimp. By the end, the story moves into some difficult territory, and it became rather unbelievable, and hard to finish.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  76 reviews
50 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What Can a Chimp Teach Us About Ourselves? Jan. 24 2011
By Anastasia Beaverhausen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The advance hype for "Bruno Littlemore" stretches all the way to last June, where it was the talk of the BookExpo America in New York. The hype is justified. Benjamin Hale has created one of the most distinctive and playful narrators in years in the form of Bruno Littlemore, a talking chimpanzee who dictates his story to an assistant. If you read the first three pages, you won't be able to stop. Trust me on this.

Bruno is intelligent, witty, and quite arrogant--a wonderfully glorious combination. Bruno's voice is in sharp contrast to "Room" by Emma Donoghue, a novel with a child's narrative voice that was well received by critics and audiences in 2010. However, like that book, "Bruno Littlemore" transcends the narrative trickery to provide the reader with an emotional experience that you will remember long after you've finished the final pages.

P.S. There is monkey/human sex and monkey/frog sex. The former is love, and the latter you've probably seen video of on YouTube.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I am Bruno and Littlemore Feb. 5 2011
By Chris B. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Benjamin Hale's big debut novel is the story of a chimpanzee (an ape, not a monkey, as he says) named Bruno Littlemore. His name is half taken and half received: Bruno is his given name, Littlemore is the last name of his former caretaker, Lydia. Littlemore turns out to be a misnomer as Bruno is much more than a chimpanzee, he can speak.

The novel is told from Bruno's perspective in the form of a transcribed recording of his autobiography (see, Lolita). Bruno is selected at a young age from a zoo for research and is transferred to a lab in Chicago. A young researcher, Lydia Littlemore, takes a special interest in Bruno and Bruno shortly reveals his ability to speak, or to learn to speak, honed by (of all people) an autistic night janitor.

As Bruno says, "A being acquires language because it is curious, because it yearns to participate in the perpetual reincarnation of the world. It is not just a trick of agreement. It is not a process of painting symbols over the faces of the raw materials of the cosmos. A being acquires language to carve out its own consciousness, its own active and reactive existence. A being screams because it is in pain, and it acquires language to communicate."

This is when the novel really takes off. As Bruno "evolves," he takes on the better and worse qualities of humankind: vanity, self-consciousness, morality. Bruno becomes human in as many ways as an ape can, to his benefit and detriment: he loves, he is loved; he suffers, he makes others suffer. Through Bruno, the novel asks many questions about the nature of man and animal, about language, about morality, and about love.

"There are two kinds of awe," Bruno says to Clever Hands, a chimp who can sign, "One is an awe at nature, and the other is awe at the wild irrational beauty of the mind. Are these awes in opposition to one another? Or are they, in some terrifying, spooky way, somehow connected?"

There are a lot of great moments like this: Bruno's time at the zoo, Bruno with Lydia in Chicago, the underground performance of The Tempest, the final confrontation. The novel as a whole is excellent, filled with humor, heartbreak, and intelligence.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars incredible Feb. 3 2011
By DMary48 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

In response to the one negative review on here, Bruno is not supposed to be a likeable character. Yes, he's sarcastic, crass, self-contradictory (aren't we all?), but, above all, he is overwhelmingly truthful, and I can anticipate that some readers will squirm as he voices his (very loud) opinions. That is the beauty of this book. As "unlikeable" as he may be, there are some extremely tender moments where I felt myself feeling compassion and pity towards Bruno. THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE is an exploration of the human condition-- the good, the bad, and the ugly. And Bruno certainly doesn't spare us from the things we don't want to hear about ourselves.

Hale is an excellent writer and his talent shines through on every page. It's a hefty book, but it moves quickly with a vivid cast of characters that at times will have you laughing out loud. I couldn't put this book down. An excellent debut novel to say the least. I look forward to reading more of Hale's work in the future.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Maybe a five star, maybe a one star, definitely a struggle. April 10 2011
By J. Prather - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I have been going back and forth in my head over this review for quite awhile. I mean, how can I possibly give this book a two star rating when the writing is just so wonderful? The author challenged my vocabulary; something that no book has done in quite awhile. The many literary and philosophical references served as delightful surprises to be unearthed in this story that was in turn shocking, tedious, inspiring, infuriating and thoughtful.

*******Spoiler Alert*****

To say that this is not a book for everyone would be a gross understatement. I knew going into this novel that Bruno and his human companion develop a sexual relationship. Somehow I was still shocked when it occurred. I am puzzled that this relationship developed at a time in Bruno's evolution when even the scientists admitted that he had the language skills of a two year old child. The relationship between Lydia and Bruno occurs at a time when Lydia is a mother figure and he is still being charmed by Sesame Street. The speed at which this relationship changed from pseudo mother/child to lovers left me flabbergasted and dismayed. I have read books where people do unfathomable things, but usually the author makes some effort to bring us into the heads of their characters so that we may better understand their actions. I did not feel this at all with Lydia. I did not understand her feelings, her motivations, or her actions. Unfortunately, this killed a lot of this story for me.

There's no doubt that Bruno's evolution is a fascinating read. The first two hundred pages or so that involved language acquisition were interesting and made for compelling reading. Bruno's obsessive descriptions of things in his environment were made more palatable by the author's beautiful writing. It was only later in the story that Bruno himself becomes rather caught up in his own pretentiousness that I began to dislike him and really wanted him to be quiet for a while.

********Spoiler End*********************

The writing is wonderful, and the story brings to life many questions on the nature of humanity. The author set off on an ambitious project here, and unfortunately I think he only marginally succeeded. Parts of this book were very enjoyable and interesting, and parts left a bad taste in my mouth. It was an intellectual and morally challenging read, but ultimately not a very entertaining one. Hopefully the next time around the author will have honed his storytelling skills to a level to match his superb writing skills. I have no wish to ever revisit this one again. Not a recommend.
79 of 103 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore: What to Expect from this Novel Feb. 11 2011
By Sarah P.H. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Another reviewer remarked that you won't like Bruno, the chimpanzee narrator of this novel. While others have quipped that you're not supposed to, he was intended to be flawed, etc. etc., that doesn't make it any less true: Bruno is a completely unlikeable character, bordering on sociopathic. And not in the potentially entertaining, V for Vendetta, "Angry Man Blows Up Everything" kind of way. Bruno is just cowardly and narcissistic to the point that it's almost painful to read -- and this may be problematic for readers who like to sympathize with their protagonists.

A few other things to expect going in: If you're the slightest bit bothered by bestiality, you'll probably be offended by this book. (I personally am pretty mellow about such things, but it seems like a fair warning to others, as the human/chimp sex thing isn't just mentioned once or twice in passing -- it features prominently and continuously in the story.)

I also feel compelled to give a heads up on the writing style. It's very purple, with literally pages dedicated to describing things of only peripheral interest, like the apartment Bruno lived in. The narrator branches off onto preachy, semi-relevant philosophical musings at every possibly opportunity, and all of this is done in very long sentences -- usually involving a sequence of breathless, comma-separated descriptive fragments.

On a related note, the paragraphs are generally very long as well, often dragging on for a page or more for no clear reason. Chapter 44, in fact, is comprised of a single run-on paragraph. Whatever the literary merit of this book's chosen narrative style, I feel like anyone planning to buy it should at least be prepared for the unbroken walls of text it contains.

One final warning: despite the overblown verbosity of the novel, it seemed to completely gloss over the parts that had the potential to be most fascinating, and which I felt warranted the most description. The process whereby Bruno learned language is hardly explained at all, and we're not privy to any serious amount of conversation between the talking ape and his handler Lydia -- despite the fact that they are (we are repeatedly told) deeply and passionately in love.

As my one-star rating implies, I didn't much care for this book. Although the premise had potential, the execution fell far short of my expectations, largely for the reasons outlined above. Your mileage may vary, and you may end up really liking it -- but hopefully this review will at least help people know what to expect from this novel going in.
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