Hale’s novel tells the story of a precocious chimpanzee. After displaying early cognitive promise as an inmate at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Bruno’s selected for intensive study by a team of primate scientists. He moves in full-time with his trainer, Lydia Littlemore—and, through constant work, the young chimp develops the ability to understand human language. As his linguistic faculties become more human, his emotional and psychological complexity deepen. He falls madly in love with Lydia. Later, he commits murder.
The novel opens with Bruno looking back at his failed attempt to integrate into human society. Fittingly, he speaks the whole book out loud, and his memories are taken down verbatim by his assistant, Gwen. The resulting book is a part Lolita-style confessional, part literacy narrative, and part Scopes Monkey Trial. It’s rife with the id-on-the-page madness we’d expect from a talking chimp, but the narrative also displays the subtlety, momentum, and technical brilliance we expect from our best human novelists. The book also makes a powerful philosophical contribution to our still-murky understanding of animal cognition—just as it asks profound questions about what it means to be homo sapiens.
Benjamin Hale is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He first had the idea for his book on a trip away from Iowa, while watching the antics of chimpanzees at the Chicago Zoo. By chance, the world’s foremost primate language lab—The Great Ape Trust—is located in Des Moines, and the Hale was able to visit and learn from the scientists who are teaching chimpanzees, bonobos, organutans to do eerily human things. Hale completed his novel with the help of a Provost’s Fellowship from the University of Iowa. He’s written a book that’s daring, innovative, and challenging, but the Christopher Beha of the New York Times Book Review said it best when he wrote, simply, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is “an absolute pleasure.”