Tuesday, April 05, 2011

How Unreliable Are We Talking?

I recently finished reading a very, very good novel called The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. The central conceit is quite simple. Bruno is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak. He is dictating his life story to an off-stage transcriber, and this is the story we are reading.

 Before I dive into the point of this post, let me say that the novel is everything I had heard—erudite, funny, moving, and reflective of a deep and abiding passion for language. I heartily recommend you read it.

But, since this is my blog and a straightforward review is not what has spurred me to write, I will instead discuss two things:

  1. The narrator
  2. Bestiality
1. The Narrator (see how I left bestiality for second, to encourage you to read this part?)

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the book where Bruno, faced with an emergency, must call for help. At this stage of the story, precious few people in the world know about his gift for gab. So when Bruno frantically knocks on a neighbor’s door and begs for help, and the neighbor goes with him with nary a comment about the fact that it is a talking chimpanzee she is listening to, it gives the reader pause. And at the end of this chapter, Bruno acknowledges this, and sloughs it off by saying that the details may not be all accounted for in his story but that the truth has been left intact.
This moment gave me pause. For this is a book in which our narrating chimp seems to gloss over certain important elements to his story—not only how people reacted to his speech, but also the actual development of that speech and the critical nut of his eventual romantic and, yes, sexual, relationship with his primary handler/de facto owner, Lydia Littlemore. And the question that jumped into my head was of how much we were supposed to take Bruno—or, more to the point, his transcriber—at face value.

Because, again, this is a novel that is being written, within the world of the novel, by a researcher who Bruno is dictating to. And so I start to wonder—how much can Bruno really talk? As someone with a fascination with chimps and language, I have read a little on the subject, and I recall reading at some point that experiments designed to give chimps the ability to speak were doomed to failure, simply because of the physical limitations posed by chimp physiology—position of larynx, tongue, teeth, etc. And indeed in the course of the novel Bruno does address this supposed limitation, a limitation he, again, glosses over with something about how it only takes practice and good posture to get past those physical challenges. But—who is (really) saying this? Bruno the chimp or Gwen, the researcher who is writing this story? Are these “glossings” a coded way to suggest to us that our narrator is indeed highly unreliable, and that Bruno cannot really talk, and that, indeed, the entire novel is meant to be read as a wildly exaggerated and hyperbolized version of the life story of a chimp who had some strange adventures?

2. Which brings us to bestiality

 As already suggested, the central relationship in the novel is between Bruno and Lydia. And it does indeed become a romantic and sexual one. While reading those scenes, especially the ones that chronicle the beginnings of this affair, I have to admit to some severe discomfort and inability to suspend my disbelief quite as far as I was being asked. Yes, I do understand that human-animal sex is something that has happened historically. And yes, the novel does go to pains to paint Lydia as an emotionally damaged, depressed woman, presumably to help explain why she would go to the places she goes. And yet I still had some serious trouble believing in those scenes and that relationship.

But—what if that’s kind of the point? Does Benjamin Hale, the novelist, intend us to read the narrator’s unreliability in such a way that we understand that the relationship being described was not as salacious as presented? Are we to assume that this is more of Gwen’s extreme exaggerations? No review I’ve read of the book takes this tack, or at least they all seem to take the reality of the depicted events (within the world of the novel) at face value. So maybe I am just tilting at windmills in a vain attempt to find a construct that will help my limited mind make sense of the notion of the relationship at the heart of the book.


Until Whenever


Jeff Johnson said...

Great post, John - thx for these thoughtful reflections on the book. Makes me want to read it.

Tosy And Cosh said...

Thanks, Jeff. It's a fun novel that also asks some pretty interesting questions as well, and that is very much about language and what using language means. A great read.