Ambitious debut shines with promise but falls short
Benjamin Hale’s “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore” is a huge, ambitious wreck of a novel. Narrated by a literate, lecherous chimpanzee who looks back at his life from a comfortable incarceration he is serving for murder, the “memoir” ignites like a drag racer, and for the first couple hundred or so pages, the enthralled rider/reader holds on for dear life.
Hale begins with a crafty and amusing channeling of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, easily mimicking the lush, ecstatic language, sly snobbery, and rapture over forbidden love — in this case not a child, Lolita, but a human, Lydia. Narrating his early family life in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, Bruno becomes hilariously, bombastically misanthropic as he describes the physical and moral squalor of his surroundings: “You’d think I grew up in Appalachia.” And, “My mother was a creature of such intellectual poverty.” His references range exuberantly from Milton, Baudelaire, and Shakespeare to Caravaggio, Helen Keller, H.A. Rey, and beyond.
Even early on, however, there are warning signs that Hale’s vehicle may be sputtering. The “check engine” light glimmers on a couple of times, for example, when Bruno’s relentless loquacity and love of detail leads him to a five-page description of Lydia’s bland apartment, including a diagram and a numbered tour of the rooms; as well as when some of his numerous psychological and sociological insights turn out to be weary decades old. About death, he writes, “There’s nothing else . . . we talk about in such couched euphemisms and hush-hush tones. Our sick and elderly we ferret away to die in the impersonal and sanitized environs of a hospital.” And about Chicago’s Marshall Field’s, “It was like a cathedral, a temple to commerce.” But despite these and other detours into logorrhea and banality, Hale’s cleverness and genuine talent for farce power us along a bit longer.
From the Lincoln Park Zoo, the smarter-than-average Bruno is taken to a lab at the University of Chicago to be studied and educated. This stay proves the high point of the book. Hale’s portrayal of Bruno’s researchers is canine-sharp, and his familiarity with linguistics makes for interesting digressions. The inadvertent, improvised “night classes” where the chimp begins to understand language from an intellectually challenged night watchman brim with delight and wit.
An early misunderstanding of Bruno’s sparks perhaps Hale’s funniest routine. “I remember that they [two researchers] often uttered a word, or series of words, that sounded to me like ‘Gnome Chompy.’ Of course I understood what a gnome was, because . . . of my second-favorite TV show, “Francis the Gnome.’’ Francis was portrayed as a . . . benevolent force in a . . . wicked world. So I assumed they were speaking of a gnome named Chompy. However, I could ascertain from the wrathful tones in which the two women spoke . . . that they considered him to be a harmful and vituperative creature.” Soon after, the gnome-cum-linguist appears again: “That night I dreamed of the Gnome Chompy. It was a dark dream. A nightmare.”
And then, rather suddenly, around page 170 when Bruno is high on marijuana and starts to expatiate on Eros and Thanatos, the novel coughs, stalls, and rolls to a stop, at which point the startled reader has to get out and help the driver push his vehicle uphill for the last 400 pages.
How to explain? For one, the plot thickens, in fact it inspissates (as the word-worshipper Bruno might put it) to the consistency of sludge. What was a wildly unlikely but somehow credible character-driven tale becomes an overly earnest contrived narrative with a large, curiously familiar cast and a variety of over-described locations. The language, too, falters, swinging between the mundane — “[O]n one [table] . . . stood many wineglasses and bottles of wine, . . . and on the other table was an arrangement of hors d’oeuvres: brownies, cheeses, crackers, little tomatoes, miniature salami sandwiches and such” and the ponderous — “[M]y face was squished flat to the cold glass of the passenger-side window . . . my eyes watching the outside world whip pass me in all its immeasurable and unknowable magnitude.”
The once-entertaining if pretentious philosopher-chimp becomes no less talkative but much less interesting as clever observations are replaced by ingenuous cliché: “The invention of writing and reading might be the single most miraculous achievement of the human mind.” At times — for example when he illuminates for us “the whole delicate metalanguage of human social posturing” — Bruno starts to sound like a voiceover from an old episode of “NOVA’’: “What apes do with thumping on their chests, throwing clumps of grass, banging on logs — human beings do in subtler ways.”
Even Bruno’s misanthropy becomes tiresome, as he directs his anger at the usual, uni-dimensional suspects, the lower-middle class who “plod through unremarkable lives,” the “placidly content bourgeoisie,” and, of course, religious believers. His discussion of the “Christian right” seems lifted from MSNBC: “Why must we listen to their ‘opinions’? Why must we suffer them to jam their feet in the doors of our discourse? . . . Why allow their voices into our politics?”
The pre-publication buzz around “Bruno Littlemore” is noisy and excited. It surely is a book that exhibits the promise of a patently talented writer. But “Bruno Littlemore” turns out to be a big book with a small soul. One hopes that as Hale’s mastery of his craft evolves, so too does his understanding of and sympathy for all primates, including human beings.
Alec Solomita, a fiction writer and critic living in Somerville, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.