Consider the miracle of evolution. Out of the dross of fish and pigs and apes, over eons, it has shaped matter into humans. And humans, over centuries, have created music and philosophy and literature. Now, one very highly evolved human, Benjamin Hale, has evoked, in his dazzling first novel, the miracle of Bruno Littlemore, the world's first talking chimpanzee.
"The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" takes the form of Bruno's memoir dictated from a primate research center in Georgia, where he's been confined for killing a human. This chimp not only speaks English, he's as sensitive and charming, as brilliant and learned as any human alive. Still, he feels no remorse for what he considers a murder of necessity.
In bald summary, this opening may seem off-putting, but one need read only a few pages to be swept up by the grandeur of Hale's ebullient prose. So much so that even the later revelation of human-chimp sex can be taken in without much too dismay. The author's contention, you see, is that we are far more like apes than different, at once lovers and killers.
But it's Bruno's distinctive voice, more than debating points, that wins us over. Initially, it conveys the curiosity and freshness of an Adam in the Garden of Eden, assigning names to everything he sees for the first time. Then it takes on layers of nuance and allusion, becoming the voice of experience and education. Is Hale guilty of anthropomorphizing? You betcha, in spades. The resulting fusion - part chimp Adam, part chimp philosopher - is altogether beguiling.
Here, for instance, are Bruno's takes on three human heads. One is bald "except for a semicircular muff of white hair playing ring-around-the-rosy with his skull." A "lumpy" one looks as if "it had been sculpted out of butter and then allowed to partially melt." A woman's face is torn between Scandinavian chic - she "wouldn't have looked out of place in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman movie" - and the "snaggletoothed smile" of her poor Southern roots.
Before this remarkable metamorphosis, Bruno is merely another baby chimp in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. Plucked from the zoo by psychologist Lydia Littlemore, he is enrolled in primate language experiments at the University of Chicago. He's so precocious a student that Lydia takes him home to live in her apartment. Bruno's talents can't be caged in. Soon Bruno is not only grasping human language but gravitating toward human love, and mutual affection soon evolves into a secret sexual relationship.
Language is the key to Bruno's evolution. "I made myself with words," he says. Thus equipped, he hones previously inchoate primate thoughts and feelings into language. The more he learns to speak, read and learn - acquiring the equivalent of a liberal arts education - the more he begins to stand upright, lose his hair and desire a human nose. But he can never be fully human. Besides Lydia, whom he loves unconditionally, Bruno regards Homo sapiens with bemused fascination and occasional loathing. For they refuse to understand that they are not the measure of all things, that they are part of nature, not its masters.
Bruno's feats make him a media sensation, and his cross-species love affair a scandal. For much of this offbeat tale, Bruno is a fugitive on the run from human cruelty and misunderstanding. We witness mindless fundamentalists, creepy scientists, shameless self-promoters. What began in wonder before humanity's achievement descends into cynicism. With his jaded co-conspirator, Leon Smoller, a modern Falstaff - Bruno calls him a "sweet creature of bombast" - he enacts Shakespeare on New York's subways. Like the novel itself, these little playlets embody tragedy disguised as comedy.
Hale's gift is to summon both of these at once. With his primary Chicago setting, engrossing storytelling, unabashed braininess, predilection for eccentric characters, and long, looping, wonderfully evocative sentences, Hale reminds me of no writer so much as Saul Bellow. But he's got a bold, risk-taking, off-center view of the world all his own.
"The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore" rides on our culture's sympathy for animals, but never seems didactic or hectoring. In the acknowledgments, Hale declares himself a longtime admirer of chimpanzee champion Jane Goodall. In the novel, though, he's too busy telling one rollicking story. Adventure tale, love story, science fiction, novel of ideas - this one's got it all.
THE EVOLUTION OF BRUNO LITTLEMORE, by Benjamin Hale. Twelve, 578 pp, $25.99.