three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
52-May-June-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-The Evolution of Bruno LittlemoreThis is the first novel by Benjamin Hale. A graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, he lives in New York.

The Story: Presented as a "memoir" narrated from an unusually comfortable prison cell, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a novel about a 25-year-old hyperintelligent chimpanzee who is trained to talk and to participate in human society. From there, his exploits abound: he learns to paint, stages an Off-Off-Broadway version of The Tempest, and contemplates mortality. None of them, however, are as shocking as his romance with his human trainer, University of Chicago primatologist Lydia Littlemore. Erudite and rude, enlightened and lost, Bruno, with his take on life, makes us ask what it means to be human.
Twelve. 578 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780446571579

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"From the first page, it is clear that Bruno is more than mere literary gimmickry; he is fascinating and fully formed. ... 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." Keith Staskiewicz

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Hale's novel is so stuffed with allusions high and low, so rich with philosophical and literary interest, that a reviewer risks making it sound ponderous or unwelcoming. So let's get this out of the way: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is an absolute pleasure." Christopher R. Beha

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Benjamin Hale's audacious first novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, is a tragicomedy that makes you want to jump up on the furniture and beat your chest. ... Hale, who grew up in Colorado and graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, demonstrates an extraordinary intellectual range, and only his wacky sense of humor can keep Bruno from coming off as a hirsute boor." Ron Charles

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Unlike the bubbling pickle pots of Midnight's Children and Humbert Humbert's paranoid delusions at the end of Lolita ... narrative hiccups distract from the performance, drawing attention instead to the noises backstage. That being said, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a major accomplishment. A lively page-turner that asks the big questions head on and doesn't shy away from controversy, Hale's first novel is a noisy, audacious and promising debut." Michael David Lukas

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Bruno's] naïveté and innocence inspire us to admire the beauty of nature and art and great writing. He reminds us of the beauty of loving selflessly and being loved. Yes, we can learn lots from Bruno--but does he have to be so annoyingly like us?" Carol Memmott

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Benjamin Hale's The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a huge, ambitious wreck of a novel. ... What was a wildly unlikely but somehow credible character-driven tale becomes an overly earnest contrived narrative with a large, curiously familiar cast and a variety of over-described locations." Alec Solomita

Critical Summary

Whether they ultimately praised the book or not, the comparisons critics needed to make in order to describe The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore--mainly comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita but also to Salman Rushdie and Franz Kafka--give some idea of Hale's ambition. In general, reviewers felt Hale was up to the task, producing an innovative and interesting work of fiction. But they tended to acknowledge two excesses. The first is the book's length, which some critics felt was a sign of the first-time novelist trying to fit everything into his book. The second is the graphic description of a sexual relationship between a human and chimpanzee. Though no critic actually called this out as unacceptably offensive, it means that The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore will not be enjoyed by all members of our species.