Amazingly, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale is the second novel I’ve read in as many years which is narrated by a chimp. Me Cheeta, the Hollywood kiss and tell-style biography of Tarzan’s best buddy, sneaked onto the Booker longlist in 2009 although it was a better idea than it was a novel. Talk about waiting for buses.
(And there seems to be more on the way.... the chimp genre is in danger of ballooning like Vampire yarns).
So did someone take the old adage about monkeys, typewriters and the complete works of Shakespeare a little too literally? But why chimps? It occurs to me that both these novels - Me Cheeta author James Lever is A Bolton-born Englishman while Bruno's Hale is an American products of one its many creative writing academies - were conceived during the George W. Bush idiocracy when it might have seemed to some that a monkey was in charge.
More likely, this mini-obsession with animals sharing 98 per cent of our DNA probably reflects a general anxiety about the dumbing-down of modern society: if all we do is eat fast food and watch reality TV, just how different from unthinking primates are we? Of course, Hale has done his research into current thinking on ape’s and language and his simian, Bruno, is the opposite to lumpen-humankind: he is curious, a hard worker, open-minded and extremely clever.
Yes but. This book lives or dies by its narrator, and while there are good moments Bruno is overwhelmingly a bore. He never uses one word when a hundred will do (you teach ‘em to talk, then they never shut up!) and as a result the novel is disappointingly baggy and episodic.
Plot twists, such as they are, are constantly flagged up in advance (it’s a knowing narrative, dahling) thereby destroying any chance of suspense or, dare I say it, that we are being told a story, rather than being invited to witness how smart the author is. But then, perhaps it is targeted at readers who are into endless tangential discussions on everything from Darwin to why Barbie dolls don’t have nipples.
This is a novel steeped in its own apelore. Bruno is a reverse of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes: he is an ape raised by humans who shuns his own kind to become human. But what the book actually turns out to be is an elaborate, often pornographic reworking of Pinocchio, the puppet who wants to be a boy. Bruno even gets himself a human nose – a nose, get it?
Oh yes, The Porn. It’s not that big a spoiler to say that Bruno has (a lot of) sex with a human woman and that this is described in such graphic detail, well, some of you might be compelled to throw the paperback out the window. Others, however, may want to post quotes on Facebook, which is pretty much where they belong.
* This review appears in this week's Big Issue Scotland magazine. Buy it from a vendor today.