A Conversation with Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
A talking monkey, interspecies canoodling and a hot tub three-way gone wrong hardly seems like the stuff of literary fiction, but somehow in the hands of Brooklyn novelist Benjamin Hale that’s just what it becomes. Better still, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011), Hale’s impressive and affecting debut novel, is a rip-roaring read (no small feat for a book that weighs in at just under 600 pages). Bruno, Hale’s protagonist, is a chimpanzee savant who acquires language and uses it to great effect to relate the story of his life—a tale with all the humor, tragedy and sweep of a Dickens’ novel.
Born into captivity, Bruno lives in unspoiled innocence at the ape enclosure at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo until he’s chosen to participate in a series of language experiments at the University of Chicago. In short order he loses his taste for the uncivilized life, starts wearing pants, learns to speak and launches into a torrid love affair with one of the bipedal members of the great ape family (yeah, a real human woman). But this is just the beginning of Bruno’s journey, which ultimately leads him to wrestle with questions that have haunted philosophers for centuries: what separates man from animals? Is language the key to humanity? Does the gift of culture outweigh the loss of innocence?
Hale, a recent graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, is a relative newcomer to the literary scene, but he’s already got all the bravado of his heroes Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Likening his unlikely narrator to Nabokov’s great misfit Humbert Humbert, Times’ reviewer Christopher Rhea said of Bruno, “[he] has some of Humbert’s erudition and much of his arrogance.” And like Bruno, Hale is impish, engaging, and ready to hold forth on any number of topics. Brooklyn Based sat down with him recently to discuss the book, animal cognition, Shakespeare, James Franco, and where humans should fall in the cosmic pecking order.
What came first, the character of Bruno or the idea that primates may be more like humans than we care to admit?
Bruno came first and the themes came afterword, but not long afterword. When I first started writing the book—at the absolute beginning—it was a joke. At the time, my girlfriend lived in Chicago and was a grad student in architecture, which meant she was always bent over her computer working. She lived in this basement apartment in Lincoln Park and when I was waiting for her to finish work I would walk across the street and go to the Lincoln Park Zoo and just hang out all day.
They have this really fantastic primate exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo—and the zoo is free, which is a cool thing and was especially good for me because that was about what my budget allowed at the time. I would sit there, especially in the winter when there was nobody else around and watch the chimps all day long and try to do the Jane Goodall thing. And sometimes when the chimps weren’t doing anything, I would bring a book to read. At one point I was reading Portnoy’s Complaint—this brash, noisy memoir about this perverted, neurotic, angry man complaining about his claustrophobic childhood. The energy and the humor in the writing was so electric, I just looked up at the chimps and the idea was born. I wanted to write Portnoy’s Complaint—only with a chimp.
I didn’t even really plan on showing it to anybody and then I came up for workshop and that was the only thing I had, so I submitted it and Sam Chang [the director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop] suggested I keep going with it. Three years later I finally finished it.
So Portnoy’s Complaint was the initial kind of seed of inspiration, but over the course of writing it, I let myself be influenced by all these other things, like Tristram Shandy and Saul Bellow and Nabokov and Gunter Grass, particularly The Tin Drum.
Your book seems to suggest that the line separating human consciousness from apes is much finer than many of us believe. What do you think about the field of animal cognition?
I think it’s a really important thing. The idea that an animal can have consciousness—can have intelligence, emotions, an inner life, morality, altruism—that’s really important. Human exceptionalism has been taken for granted for a very long time. Take Descartes’ Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain of Being is this linear, teleological ordering of all manner of life that ascends in steps of perfection. So it starts with Satan at the bottom—the most imperfect being, above that is demons, and then there’s, like, rocks and trees, and then there are animals. In the lower tiers you get, like, fish and in the upper tiers you get mammals, and the animals that humans are particularly close to, like horses and dogs, are at the top. After that come humans on their own separate, discrete plane and then angels and then God.
This straight up and down teleological ordering was a direct reflection of attitudes about animals and it was heavily influenced by theology. You take away human exceptionalism and all theology just falls apart, because heaven is a human heaven. This was a big problem for Descartes and his solution was just to flat out deny consciousness to animals, to draw a circle in the sand around human beings and say, only these animals have consciousness, and therefore souls, and all other animals, we have to assume that they’re just, basically, totally instinctual automatons.
That solution to the problem of animal consciousness stuck around in Western thinking even after Darwin, though Darwin himself did not think that way. In Origin of the Species and the Descent of Man Darwin talks a lot about moral behavior in animals and about social behavior and what amounts to the underpinnings of animal consciousness. The people who came after Darwin, the major popularizers of Darwin, particularly T.H. Huxley, were still stuck in the Cartesian paradigm of animals not having consciousnesses and that sort of thinking has affected popular understanding of evolution ever since.
You clearly did an enormous amount of research for this book. What were some of the most interesting stories you stumbled on?
The world of animal language, particularly ape language, is small and much of it revolved around a professor named Bill Lemon. Bill Lemon was this wildly eccentric guy—head of the psychology department at the University of Oklahoma—who was really interested in cross fostering experiments with chimpanzees. And the stories that came out of Norman, Oklahoma in the ‘70s were absolutely bizarre.
At some point in Roger Fouts’ memoir about working with chimps, Next of Kin, he writes that Norman, Oklahoma in the ‘70s must have held some sort of world record for “town with highest number of chimps being raised as human children,” because Bill Lemon would get all his colleagues and grad students and patients to do these cross fostering experiments with the chimps.
The result was that people would raise these chimps until they were about five or six years old—until they would get too big or too unruly to have around the house—and then they would send them back to Bill Lemon’s farm on the outskirts of town. The farm had this big, artificial lake with an island in it where the chimps were kept. So in the end, Lemon had this island full of neurotic, poorly socialized, screwed up chimps that had all been raised as human children.
Did any of the stories you drew on change the way you think about how the human brain works or how animals think?
I think the story that most profoundly affected me was something that I saw as a kid that stayed with me for years and years. It comes from a Jane Goodall documentary, People of the Forest. There was a chimp named Flint that was, basically, like this mamma’s boy chimp. He had this neurotic, unhealthy, obsessive attachment to his mother and he clung to his mother’s back for far longer than chimps usually do. Chimps usually quit when they’re five years old, but he kept clinging to her back for so long all the other chimps wanted nothing to do with him. And she let him! They just had this connection. When he was an adolescent, his mother died just because she was old, and he couldn’t accept her death. He dragged the body around with him for weeks afterwards. He refused to eat and he refused to sleep and he, essentially, just wasted away. Jane Goodall found him by the creek still holding his mother’s body, dead himself.
When I saw that I was just so haunted and disturbed by the idea that an animal could let his emotions get in the way of his evolutionary imperative to live. I think it says something really profound about animal consciousness: that a chimp can have an inner life, that they can be just as crazy as a human being.
Bruno has a really unusual and winning mix of high and lowbrow interests. There’s nearly as much talk about Sesame Street as there is about Shakespeare in the book.
When writing deals with pop culture, or with what’s perceived as low culture, I love it when it embraces it enthusiastically. This is one of my favorite things about Pynchon. In a Pynchon novel, you’ll read all these references to literature and history and, you know, Wittgenstein and philosophy, but he’s just as in love with King Kong and the Marx Brothers and cartoons.
My sense of humor is just as much influenced by stuff like Nabokov and Wittgenstein as it is by Ren & Stimpy and I wanted the Ren & Stimpy in there too. I can’t help the fact that I’m a young person who grew up in the late twentieth century. My brain is just as influenced by pop culture and Sesame Street and cartoons (maybe way more so) than all the sort of higher brow stuff that I read later in my life. I love that stuff and I wanted to treat it with respect.
My favorite way to look at Shakespeare is just as the trashy entertainment of the day. Of course, that doesn’t make it any less brilliant. One of my favorite aspects of Romeo and Juliet is that he sneaks a masturbation joke into Romeo’s dying line. After finding Juliet in the tomb, he’s stabbing himself over and over in the stomach and saying ‘I die, I die, I die.’ In Elizabethan English ‘die’ was slang for la petite mort, or the “small death” [an orgasm]. Shakespeare was the kind of writer who would drag you through this whole tragedy and then slip a jacking off joke into the final line of the hero’s demise.
The book includes a couple of graphic sex scenes, including a chimp and a human making love, that have generated a lot of conversation and even some condemnations. What are some of the funniest or most memorable reactions you’ve gotten?
One of the earliest readers of this book was Margot Livesy—she wrote Eva Moves the Furniture. I submitted the book for a prize and she was judge, so she read it and she wrote this summary for the prize that said “the sex scenes are inevitably repulsive . . . the story veers at times into the grotesque.” And when I first read that my reaction to it was, “Your mom veers inevitably into the grotesque.” [Laughter.]
So you didn’t experience it as grotesque as you were writing it?
For me? Yeah, I get that it’s grotesque—and I did that on purpose—but I wanted that pivotal scene she was referring to in there right from the beginning, so by the time that I was actually writing it I was so inside Bruno’s character that I wasn’t even thinking of it as bestiality.
You suffer from a condition known as Prosopagnosia or “face blindness.” Has this made things like networking awkward?
It’s not usually a problem, no. It can be funny at times though. One example, the actor James Franco applied to all these MFA programs and he applied to Iowa while I was there. He came and visited before actually applying, which is just not a normal thing. It’s like this sacred brotherhood thing. Everyone who was teaching there that semester said he couldn’t sit in, except Ethan Canin. Ethan has, like, your grandfather’s knowledge of pop culture. He had no idea who Franco was, so he said, sure, come on in.
So one day I walk into the building and there was this guy and I didn’t know who he was, and I thought, who is that guy? And I thought, that is probably the most handsome man I have ever seen in person, and so immediately, of course, I hated him. So I went to my workshop, which was being taught by Ethan Canin, and there’s the guy and I still can’t place him, but I know he looks familiar and then I finally figure it out: he’s Harry Osborn from the Spiderman movies. Anyway, my friend Jim was being workshopped that day and he was late and it was a congenial enough atmosphere that when somebody was late we’d call them up, so my friend Nemo called him up and got his voicemail and Nemo looked right at James Franco and said, “Jim, come to class. This is as close to fame as you’re ever going to get.”
Speaking of Franco and apes, did you know that Franco is set to star in the upcoming Planet of the Apes movie? Do you plan to see it?
Yes, I did know that. No, I don’t plan to see it. James Franco irritates me so much I couldn’t even watch the Oscars.
What’s your favorite thing about being a Brooklyn writer?
I came to New York, and Brooklyn in particular, because that’s where the action is, as far as literary culture in America. It’s a lot of fun to meet other writers, keep up with the whole conversation of contemporary literature and all that. If you were a writer in the 20s, you’d go to Paris, now you go to Brooklyn.
What are you working on now? What’s next?
I’m working on a bunch of things at the moment. I just published a long story/short novel in Conjunctions, which is the last piece of fiction I wrote that I’m really happy with. Ever since February, between teaching, touring, and various other stuff, I haven’t had much time to write fiction. I’m really looking forward to getting back to it this summer. I spent all last year writing another novel, and wound up with a big gloopy first draft that still needs a lot of work. It’s about a wine critic and his pot dealer. It’s about addiction, depression and remorse. It’s my stoner comedy. It’s kind of like Cheech and Chong, except everybody’s miserable.