Following the publication last August of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, there has been much debate concerning the merits of big, Dickensian works. The underlying question is simple: can rather traditional novels continue to do new and exciting things? Benjamin Hale’s debut, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, is just such a work; and, in short, the answer is yes.
Here’s the premise: Bruno Littlemore, a chimpanzee born in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, is the first non-human being to gain language. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is, ostensibly, Bruno’s memoir, dictated from where he sits in captivity for the murder of a man.
To summarize the book here would be a Herculean task, for the strength of this novel is its many splendored plot. In the blink of an eye, Hale takes us from Chicago to Colorado to New York City. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a Bildungsroman, but it is also, more specifically, the story of an artist. In Chicago, Bruno learns to paint before he can talk, and in converting his first private bedroom into an artist’s studio, he seems to take his first real steps toward adulthood and, by extension, toward self-actualized humanity. Bruno’s art continually propels the novel forward; during the first and only exhibit of his work, he throws a tantrum and is subsequently forced to leave Chicago and face the world, as any archetypal hero must. Later, in New York, during the novel’s bleakest act, Bruno hurls himself without reservation into a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and through his transformation into Caliban we get some of the novel’s most beautifully self-reflective passages.
Yet it is Hale’s approach to a well-worn form that sets The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore apart from the rabble. The conceit of the novel—a narrator unlike any narrator before him—turns out to be the perfect excuse for the shape of the story, a sort of narrative explanation for a form that practically demands a languid teasing out of the narrator’s life, from his earliest days to his end. Writes Bruno: “I admit that mine is a somewhat unusual memoir…most memoirists do not feel weighed down by the onus of having to describe the process of learning to speak.”
But what impresses isn’t only the way in which Hale manages the novel’s form; it’s also his deft handling and reassessment of content that could very easily have fallen prey to the kinds of clichés and trite epigrammatic statements that are the pitfalls of this kind of story. The challenge is to make it all somehow new—and it’s a challenge to which Hale rises beautifully. Take, for example, the scene in which Bruno—still pre-verbal and living with Lydia, the woman who saves him from the zoo and brings him into her life—is confronted with the familiar childhood dilemma of having to share her with someone else. Lydia asks him to set the table for three:
Setting the table was one of my regular chores. Ordinarily I would have set it for two…Lydia had shown me how to do this, and ordinarily I delighted in the ritual. But tonight, on this particular night, I remember that for some reason I just listlessly dumped several napkins and a random clattering of silverware on the surface of the table, and then clambered sullenly atop the stack of phone books on my chair, slumped myself down, and awaited the meal with crossed arms. Lydia scowled at me. ‘Don’t be a little snot,’ she said.
Later that night, after listening to the conversation and mishearing “Noam Chomsky” as “Gnome Chompy,” Bruno has the first of many recurring nightmares featuring an evil gnome.
That Hale is writing in part about his own childhood is at once clear and not particularly noteworthy in itself. That he is doing so through the lens of a chimpanzee who is effectively becoming human is a perfect example of how a writer can continue to perform new tricks even when his deck of cards is the same as his father’s, his grandfather’s, and so on. Not only has Hale avoided the pitfalls of the Victorian novel, but he’s found the perfect story to tell through its lens.
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is the record of a life lived. It is a novel unhindered by postmodernist tricks. As I burned through its 576 pages, I barely noticed the sky darkening to night, and upon waking the next day I found myself sneaking paragraphs over breakfast, and I thought of Jane Eyre, and I thought of David Copperfield, and I was delighted to be reading a work so firmly in that tradition, yet so undeniably new and exciting.
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
TWELVE books, $25.99 hardcover, ISBN 0446571571
David Frederick Thomas lives with his wife and family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he is pursuing a bachelor's in English at Temple University. An assistant editor at Barrelhouse Magazine, his short fiction has appeared in PANK, Storyglossia and The Blotter.