The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore Hardcover – Feb 2 2011
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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
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)
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The conceit of a chimp that develops human-like thought is fraught with possibilities and author Benjamin Hale generally delivers. How does the member of another species view we crazy humans? How can our odd behavior be understood by an entity that previously had no knowledge of us? Hale uses "Bruno" to see our world through fresh eyes, much as a precocious child might. There's a lot of fun in that and Hale's intricate prose makes this exploration fun.
But, beware. Bruno's not always so likeable. He is, after all an animal. And, despite his eventual erudition and refinement, some of his behavior throughout the book shockingly reminds you of that.
Despite generally enjoying this tale, there were several things that bothered me about it. (1) Bruno's development from simple chimp to super-intellectual happens in a more or less magical fashion; no plausible explanation for this transition is really offered. (2) Bruno repeatedly describes his intense love affair with Lydia Littlemore, the research assistant who essentially adopts him but Lydia is almost non-existent as a character. She has very few speaking lines and their entire "relationship" occurs almost exclusively through Bruno's simple assertions. This seemed so odd that I began to suspect that Bruno was an unreliable narrator. I began to think that he was simply making the whole thing up. (3) Almost no attempt is made by the author to deal with the realities of a talking chimp making his way through the human world. For instance, at one point, Bruno has to get help for an unconscious Lydia and runs to an upstairs neighbor asking for an ambulance to be called. No account is given of the neighbor's reaction to being greeted by a talking chimp. Bruno simply says "it may have happened this way", hinting perhaps that it didn't. Again, the possibility of an unreliable narrator is raised...but is never resolved. (4) the physical relationship that's described between Bruno and Lydia has an outcome that is simply biologically impossible. Again, no explanation. (5) There is graphic detail in this novel that is sometimes simply over-the-top, particularly in the opening chapters describing Bruno's life as a typical zoo-kept chimp.
Despite these significant flaws, this is still an enjoyable and well-written (if not perfectly plotted) read. Hale is clearly a talented writer and I look forward to his next effort.