It may take a million monkeys clacking into infinity on a million Remingtons to re-create the works of Shakespeare, but it takes only one literate, hyperintelligent chimpanzee to narrate The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, a stunning debut novel. Bruno, its singular protagonist, is a 25-year-old chimp born at a zoo and raised by researchers who taught him to read, write, and speak. The trappings of humanity, unfortunately, have come with unexpected wants and desires, and Bruno ends up falling in love with one of his handlers. Deeply.
Making your main character a talking ape and one who engages in a romantic liaison with a human being, no less is ambitious, to say the least. But from the first page, it is clear that Bruno is more than mere literary gimmickry; he is fascinating and fully formed. You learn as much by what he withholds as by what he provides, and he withholds a lot. Since he's a defensive and unreliable narrator with an unorthodox sexual predilection, the easy comparison point for Bruno is Lolita's Humbert Humbert, but he calls to mind that book's author just as readily. Like Nabokov, he is a late adopter of English who throws himself wholly into the language, exploring its less-visited gems from ''ort'' to ''trichotillomania'' and obsessing over syntax and signifiers. While the prose often veers into grandiloquence, it is Bruno, not Hale, who is showing off. As he says, ''I made myself with words. I wrote myself into the world.''
Where the novel should be offensive, it is often tender, and where it should be risible, it is genuinely funny. (When Bruno mishears the name of a famous linguist, he begins having terrifying visions of a toothy dwarf named Gnome Chompy.) Despite his unlikely erudition, Bruno is by turns fragile, mercurial, spiteful, narcissistic, and lost. All of which, even more than his gift of speech, just makes him that much more human. A–
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