THEORY OF BASTARDS, by Audrey Schulman. Europa Editions, 416 pp., $18 paper.
At 33, Frankie Burk — brilliant, acerbic and more than a bit tortured — makes her big entrance at a new dream job and surprises the welcoming committee.
As “Theory of Bastards” opens, Frankie exits her car, deposits herself in a wheelchair and snubs lunch with a gaggle of eager humans so she might visit her new employer’s 14 bonobos. From the first page, novelist Audrey Schulman is drawing comparisons between humans and apes.
Frankie snaps at a new colleague, “I don’t like praise. . . . Don’t give me any.” This alpha female has left Manhattan for a leading primate research center in Missouri. “A foreign country,” she thinks. “Republican, rural, creationist, poor.”
With her clipped, irascible protagonist, Schulman launches a grand rounds exploring sex, desire and pain — all framed in hominid evolution. Frankie, fresh from a MacArthur genius grant won for ascribing an evolutionary edge to women who cuckold husbands — a theory of bastards — is four years celibate and recovering from yet another surgery for chronic pain. Hence the wheelchair.
Schulman sets her witty tale in a near future where many characters enjoy enhanced genetics and technological implants. Those who can’t afford such augmentations “had begun to resemble groundhogs — a certain meaty compression, a tendency to breathe through the mouth.”
Breathing has gotten dicey for everyone, though, as climate change has whipped up dust storms and made legions of asthmatics. This afflicts the small daughter of blue-eyed and buzz-cut David Stotts, a bonobo researcher and Syrian war veteran, and Frankie’s new colleague.
Around page 200, a monster dust storm blankets the Midwest. Almost all personnel must evacuate the primate center, leaving Frankie and David isolated to care for a troop of primates famous for their matriarchal hierarchy, and their brisk, ubiquitous sex acts. Again, Schulman is playing with contrasts.
“Theory of Bastards” is lifted by its science, flecked like mica throughout the story. She tucks in fun facts — Darwin “yelling loudly at a bowl full of worms to test if they could hear” — and a research appendix that sources many of her details, including “bonobos imitating hairstyles from fashion magazines, playing basketball or drinking dish soap in order to burp bubbles.”
The writer skillfully weaves fact with fiction. Her chapters are short, her sentences clipped and efficient, if not beautiful. (For an apocalyptic vision of drought and dust that will drench the senses, see Claire Vaye Watkins’ underappreciated 2015 novel “Gold Fame Citrus.”)
Schulman delivers instead a clever story about female desire with its own fascinating origins. On her website, the author reports that her father got sole custody of her and her siblings in 1969. “The reason the judge made this decision was because my mother was having an affair. There was not an adult in my life who questioned the wisdom or logic of that decision. As children, we learned through the hesitations and tone of the conversations around us that our mom had done something unforgivable and aberrant, something no normal woman would ever do.”
This novel, she writes, “is partly an exploration of humanity’s overwhelming need to believe that women have less sex and desire than men.”
Well. As Schulman, best known for “Three Weeks in December,” works out her issues here, the results are welcome. Despite a bit of limp philosophizing near the end, she brings insight, amusement and — in contrast to the bonobos — much delayed human gratification. Her protagonists don’t even hold hands until page 390.
Still, she makes it worth the wait.