Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

As suggested by some of my previous posts on this blog (and particularly this book review), evolution is a topic that I find to be very interesting. By extension, I'm also very interested by the similarities between humans and other species on this planet, and articles about dolphin communication and chimpanzee tool use fascinate me to no end. And so when I heard about this book, I was very much intrigued.

The premise: this novel is narrated in the first person by a chimpanzee named Bruno who learns human language, and it purports to tell the story of how he went from living in a zoo, to living in human society, to living in captivity again. That premise alone was enough to persuade me to pick this book up, and I fully expected to enjoy it.

Unfortunately, upon reading I found this book to be just... awful. So much so that I was even inspired to write a review on Amazon.com, for the first time ever. You can find that review here; since it was likely to be read by people considering buying the book, I tried my best to make it informative instead of ranty. And as of this writing, it looks like three out of four people are voting it helpful, so I guess I did a reasonably good job of that.

Anyway, in this blog post, I figured I would expand a little on my Amazon review, explaining a bit more about why specifically this book was so disappointing to me.

An unlikeable main character. Flawed characters can be extremely compelling if they're done well, but Bruno the chimpanzee wasn't. I found him to be just so cowardly and narcissistic that it was unpleasant to read. By itself this may not have necessarily ruined the book for me, but it certainly didn't help when coupled with these other problems:

Overemphasis on sex. The book description disclosed that the relationship between Bruno and his handler Lydia eventually became sexual in nature, but I didn't expect the sex to play quite as large and constant a role in the story as it did. This didn't bother me so much because of the bestiality, but because the sex just seemed... awkward and poorly written.

Too much detail. I found myself losing interest and skimming ahead at times, when Bruno would spend pages at a time describing things that just didn't seem that important, like the apartment he and Lydia lived in. Perhaps if such descriptions had been spread out more, instead of dumped in all at once, I wouldn't have found it so bothersome. But throughout the book I generally found the prose to be very purple and needlessly verbose -- which made it all that much harder to get in to the story and accept that a chimpanzee had written it.

Too little detail. Yeah, I know it seems like a contradiction given my previous complaint. But despite having such excessive descriptions elsewhere, there were a few places where I really wanted detail and it wasn't given. Like the process through which Bruno learned to speak, which was completely glossed over and minimized. Or the relationship between Bruno and Lydia, which had the potential to be utterly fascinating, but which came across as shallow because we aren't shown even a single substantial conversation between the talking ape and his lover.

Utter implausibility. I was willing to lay back and accept that a particularly above-average chimpanzee could learn human language. I was even willing to accept that he could fall in love with a human and have that love reciprocated. I was willing to roll with it for the sake of the story, as long as the rest of the world behaved -- and reacted to these things -- in a way that I found to be consistent with reality. But Bruno ends up performing Shakespeare in a New York subway, and nobody notices that he's a chimpanzee, and in the end I just couldn't suspend my disbelief far enough to get in to it.

Anyway, despite my laundry list of grievances, I can't help noticing that this book seems to be getting pretty positive reviews. And I wonder if it all boils down to my expectations going in.

After all, I came to the book expecting a well-formed thought experiment, something bordering on sci-fi, that really explored the consequences of a chimpanzee that possessed every trait that we traditionally regard as belonging only to humans. Instead, it seemed like the author was going for some sort of "high literature" thing, full of beautiful metaphors and random philosophical ejaculations, but not much substance. And that's probably why I was disappointed.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
by Benjamin Hale
My Rating: 1 out of 5

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