In fifty chapters of roughly 10-11 pages each, sometimes more, sometimes less, a chimp turned human, dictates his story to Gwen Gupta at a primate research center in Eastman, Georgia, where he has been confined for nearly ten years now.
It is a pleasing accident that the last chapter happens to be the fiftieth, the only other chapter in this volume except for the first (and, less elegantly, the fifth and tenth) to receive the honor of being headed with a bold and single simple capital letter. I began this narrative, as is natural, with an I: standing for the ego, the fount of the first-person voice. And I end it with an L. Does that L stand for light” For Lydia? For her given, and my self-given surname? For locksmiths? For the commuter rail system of my home city? L is for laughter. L is for literature. L is for love. L is for life. L is for language.
There are all these “L’s” in Benjamin Hale’s novel. This is a first novel so as is sometimes the case, it is one of excess (some of which will turn readers off), of the ambitious ‘lets-not-leave-it-out variety’. Nevertheless, the novel is readable, wise, endearing and has much to say about what it is to be human, the essential nature of our being, and what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom – if anything. There are after all, many theories on this. But the goal posts keep moving. The arrogance of man is essentially the concept that we are not of nature, but selected by God to be outside of it (the religionists), or defined by science as a stand apart species.
Bruno was born in captivity, a primate at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. At six years old he (along with some of his siblings) is loaned out for scientific experimentation of the ‘behavioral” variety. Bruno excels at these, figuring them out more rapidly than the others. He is chosen by a research associate, Lydia Littlemore, for further study. One of the first experiments which sets him apart concerns a peach in a box. There was an elaborate demonstration of how to get the peach out of the box: pushing a button, tapping three times, then releasing a lever so that the peach could be retrieved. The tapping part was just voodoo and unnecessary. Pushing the button and springing the lever was all that was necessary. And Bruno saw this almost immediately. Nevertheless, he went along with the ritual. Hale (through the erudite voice of Bruno) describes the scene, with one of the many humorous literary references sprinkled throughout the novel.
Alone with the box, with the peach clearly visible but locked away inside, forbidden to Bruno. I looked at it a moment. I pressed the button, knocked thrice on the lid, flipped the lever, opened the box and removed the peach. Did I dare to eat a peach? Indeed I did.
In this way I fell from my state of innocence.
This same experiment is carried out simultaneously with a group of human babies. The interesting part is that the human babies continued to tap-tap-tap (as did Bruno) long after the other chimps had streamlined the process to only button, spring. With the exception of one, his brother Cookie, who streamlined the process even further by merely picking up the box and smashing it on the floor. Hey, that worked too! What did this all mean?
…for the human test subjects the whole thing was less about the reward than it was about the process. You see? It wasn’t so much that they wanted the peach as to participate in this enigmatic ritual, to perform the rite, to say their prayers. Because it’s you humans who have your absurdities of faith, you superstitions, your banshees, your hobgoblins, your necromancies and haruspices, your charms and potions and voodoo dolls and magic mirrors and boogiemen, you who infantilize the universe by vainly searching for celestial answers to earthly questions in the movements of the stars, you who have your signs and symbols, your signifiers and signified, you who cast a terror-stricken backward glance into the darkness and ask yourselves who is that third who walks always beside you, you who chant your incantations, kiss the ring and cross yourselves, sear images into your flesh and poke holes into yourselves, hack off parts of your bodies and paint yourselves blue, burn witches and sacrifice your firstborns, scream into the whirlwind and wrestle with angels until the break of dawn!
I quote this long passage (still not in its entirety) because it’s an early and perfect example of (for me) the wonderful rants that (Hale – and the voice of Bruno) makes on the nature of man. These are the essence of the book. The narrative history of Bruno, as told to Gwen in memoir fashion, are there only to further Hale’s indictment on the arrogance of man: dominion over the earth be damned. And they are not all of the ‘rant’ variety. Some are brilliant, perceptive, and moving. Really lovely prose in places.
Sure, some of it is screwy and perhaps offensive even, so be forewarned if it’s not your “cuppa”. Lydia takes Bruno home, they begin to sleep together, they move to Colorado, back to Chicago, she is impregnated by him, religious right wingers eventually take their beliefs to their logical conclusions. Bruno spends some time in New York becoming more human: he has learned language skills, he reads, he shaves off all of his hair, he has a nose job, we find out how he has ended up where he is, ‘imprisoned’ (though with relative freedom of movemen) for the crime of murder, dictating his memoirs to Gwen.
The learning of language: Noam Chomsky comes in for a fair amount of bashing here in a few subtle, buried references to his beliefs about the ability of apes to learn language skills. There are some great observations here on the use of sign language (gestures really) among both humans and animals. Humans universally use hand and facial signals for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ for example, whereas animal signals “basically group into two archcategories: I mean harm, or I mean no harm.” Further, Bruno goes on to say that language as sound qua music is the precursor to language. “All truly beautiful language is for the sake of both: communication and music.” Lydia is joined in the lab by a research assistant named Tal, who she takes under her wing. When she invites Tal over for dinner, Bruno listens to a conversation they have about what he thinks is “a gnome named Chompy” who they seem not to like at all. Ironically, later Bruno will chomp off one of Tal’s fingers in the lab.
The difference between men and women (yet another take!): “This is why…all great primatologists are women. The male human mind is hateful, bellicose, possessive, punitive, and jealous. The male mind thinks: how dare you..the female mind is quicker to empathy than indignation.”
Why Bruno decided to forsake his “apeness” and become “human”: From his space in the Chicago Zoo, there was one vantage point that allowed Bruno to see the towering structures of Chicago. When compared to the crude nests that apes build for themselves…well, Bruno falls in love with ‘humanity’. “Of course, I was in love for all the vainest reasons and greediest reasons. And it was this vanity and greed and lust that drove me to [several million years after humankind] come down out of the tree. I climbed down from that tree to spend the rest of my life running from the yawning darkness af animal terror toward the light of fire stolen from the gods, and like you, I remain in a state of constant pursuit, never quite escaping the darkness, nor ever reaching the light.”
On burial customs: When in the dead of a Chicago winter, Bruno comes across a dead, frozen parrot in the snow, he attempts to bury it. The ground is too frozen. Then he realizes that the burial ceremony in itself just makes no sense. He had recently been studying Herodotus at the library and recalled Herodotus’ description (and revulsion) of the Persian burial customs, which was to strip the body, put it on a platform and let the birds pick away. For Herodotus, this was an undignified end to a man’s life: only fire or burial in the ground were the proper end. Thinking about it Bruno understood that fire was a “total erasure” and that burial was “a refusal to let go”. The Persian custom made more sense: “to dissolve the body in the bellies of birds seems rather to give back what is nature’s to nature.”
The Forces Greater Than Ourselves: Bruno is befriended by a teenaged girl who is just growing out if her dolly stage. Her mother has plans for her to become an actress, a singer, some sort of celebrity. These are her plans for her daughter. Bruno sympathized and identified with her plight. “Both of us had been selected by forces greater than ourselves for lives of careful study and display. Little Emily had been sold into entertainment, just as I had been sold into science.”
Vanity and the Creationists: Through stress (or from becoming human), Bruno begins to lose his hair. He begins to consider the uniquely human sin that is vanity. He’s becoming the Naked Ape. Bruno compares the unease with which Darwin is read and the looks he gets. “It is the sense of absolute nakedness, of humiliation that humans feel when confronted with the realization that they are not so fucking special. They look at me and see an assault on their notion of human dignity. Dignity? No, vanity!“
At the Zoo: There is an interesting scene in Ch XLVI when Bruno (a free “man” visits the zoo from the other side of the glass. He notices the plastic cards outside the Chimpanzee enclosure that identifies the basics: habitat, life span, size, etc. Then he imagines a similar exhibit, with these same plastic cards for humans. The section “Conservation Status” is priceless:
The human is in no imminent danger. Due to its alpha predator status coupled with the ability to control its own climate, the human has ceased to evolve, thereby effectively removing itself from nature. Currently, the only palpable threat to the human is the human.