A nose job and language lessons help Bruno Littlemore, a chimp, to move in human circles.
The thing about characters who do unlikable things is that they often are tremendously likable in their own particular way. Bruno Littlemore is no exception. A self-proclaimed "first-generation immigrant to the human species," Bruno is a hairless chimp with a human nose (via plastic surgery) and a better vocabulary than most people. He's also, as we are aware from the beginning of the marvelous novel "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," a murderer. As Bruno himself says, "I am not a hero. I am a cowardly pernicious sniveling selfish wretch, who would destroy the world for his own happiness. But does that make me a villain?"
This is not a book for the squeamish. There is bestiality, and rape, and what one might consider an incestuous relationship. Let's acknowledge that upfront, but then move on. If you let this be an excuse for not reading the book, you're missing out on one of the more effusive and unrestrained works of fiction in years.
The narrator of the book is Bruno himself. He's a chimp who masters the English language and becomes an artist, a Shakespearean actor, a lover and a friend. He falls in love with Lydia Littlemore, one of the scientists who is studying him and teaching him how to talk. He's an extremely perceptive chimp, and as he grows and evolves, his observations become particularly revealing. He grapples with the divide and similarities between animal and human:
"In a way language is an inner death of that sense of perpetual amazement at the ever-renewed world. But there's a lot of terror mixed in with that amazement, that constant process of discovery, terror that dies along with that amazement, terror that we need to get rid of before we can get down to the business of being human. We gain language and lose the amazement, and afterward yearn to have it back, while at the same time we are always using our words as sticks to beat back the terror that crouches always just behind us, in our past, in our bodies, in our delicate animal selves."
It's Bruno's voice that gives this novel the complexity and life it deserves. His stories, although not always reliable, are always abundantly full of the mysteries of humanity. "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" is ultimately about what it means to be human -- isn't that what all good books are about? -- as well as about how similar we are to animals.
As Bruno says, "I climbed down from that tree to spend the rest of my life running from the yawning darkness of 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."
Michele Filgate is a writer, book critic and indie bookseller. She lives in New Hampshire.