In the end, the chimp became something worse than a man. Benjamin Hale’s deeply disturbing debut, The Evolution Of Bruno Littlemore, mines tragedy from the predicament of a chimpanzee infatuated with a researcher studying him, but winds up with a pile of windy rationalizations for Bruno’s destructive, pointless life.
Dictating his memoirs from captivity, Bruno the chimp describes his youth in a Chicago zoo and his abrupt transport to a nearby university research lab. He finds the lab’s exercises boring and trivial, including the bribes built in for cooperation, until primatologist Lydia Littlemore takes an interest in his case. Obsessed with the doctor, who arranges to have him live in her apartment when he isn’t performing for studies, Bruno is soon the toast of the department, but finds self-discipline difficult: After violent outbursts that disrupt lab life and a gallery opening for Bruno’s paintings, Bruno and Lydia escape academic life, fleeing to the ranch of an eccentric Colorado billionaire, where Bruno can live with the dignity of a human and dreams of continuing his relationship with Lydia out in the open.
Bruno believes he’s uniquely suited to offer an outsider’s perspective on the human condition, and in narrating his life, he takes every digression he can to share his expertise. When the plot shifts into picaresque mode, he finds even more to comment on, and while he’s mostly wrong, that doesn’t keep him from winding on like an intro-course term paper. Though at times his individual observations are startlingly acute, his greatest source of information is also the crux of his essential misreading of the species. Bruno fancies himself a scientist in the mold of Lydia, his keeper and experiment-partner-turned-lover, but absolves himself of the blame for her fate—and Hale’s novel allows him to pontificate emptily around that hard truth. Having invested that primary relationship with Bruno’s major source of meaning in life makes his travels look pointless in retrospect.
The Evolution Of Bruno Littlemore does meaningfully display the gap between Bruno and the humans around him, as in compiling his personal history, he bumps up against the edges of his own reason. But Hale seems hellbent on indulging Bruno’s authorly conceit that he’s actually a tragic figure, instead of plumbing the empathy gap between him and the people whose company he craves. Ultimately, Hale ruins what could have been a powerful statement on the origins of cruelty by treating his creation with the forgiving benevolence of—well, the researchers who treated Bruno like a man in the first place.