Read This Shit

“You taught me language, and my profit on it is, I know how to curse.”

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore contains some 600 pages of transcribed memoirs as dictated by its eponymous protagonist, a witty, irascible, observant, lovelorn and altogether fascinating chimpanzee taught to speak the language of humans. They are not an easy 600 pages – Bruno speaks with all the garulity and haughtiness we reluctantly expect from those who are both brilliant and arrogant. They are however an entirely worthwhile 600 pages, and they are the best (newly published) 600 pages I have read in a very long time.

At book’s start, present day adult Bruno begins his spiel with a recollection of his liberation from the zoo in Chicago he has called home as a child and his entrance into a university program attempting to foster the acquisition of human language by primates. He goes on to detail his singular success amongst his peers, his loving and lustful obsession with a young grad student named Lydia, his eventual ‘graduation’ into the human world outside of a lab, and ultimately his sad and violent fall from independence and back into captivity. Along the way he relates countless inspired observations of both humans and chimps and sometimes the beauty but more often the absurdity of their respective worlds.

It’s Bruno’s inimitable (and frequently hilarious) observations that turn his story into something more than just another throwaway Planet of the Apes-imitating social parable, where it’s quickly apparent there’s no substance beneath the surface of the human/ape mashup gimmick. By applying his scrutinous outsider perception to even the most mundane aspects of our lives, Bruno illuminates humanity’s seemingly boundless capacity for vanity and selfishness, and challenges our unshakable, species-wide certitude that we occupy a place of singular height and greatness in the natural world.

To touch upon the book’s wordiness again, and assuming Noam Chomsky is not amongst this blog’s regular readers, I suspect there is no one reading this who would not be sent scrambling to the dictionary at least a few times were they to attempt wading through Bruno’s prodigious prose. Not exactly light reading; not something you absentmindedly skim through a few pages at a time between American Idol commercials. Bruno is a chatty chimp, with many things to say and even more words to say them with. But in the middle years of his life Bruno has learned the lesson that a little self-deprecation goes a long way, and the admonishments and face-palming he heaps throughout his narrative on his younger, more intemperate self go a long way toward making his ramblings not just more sufferable, but an outright pleasure. This chimp is fun to listen to.

Beyond the linguistic barrier, the content of Bruno’s story may well present a challenge in itself for some readers. He regales us with his sexual escapades in graphic, graphic detail (out of respect to him I’ll refrain from calling it bestiality, a term he hates, but yeah, it’s bestiality). There’s also a forced abortion described with similar clarity, as well as his celebratory play-by-play of the moment when he shaves off all his hair in the bathtub and then jerks off onto the bathroom mirror.

To the squeamish: man up and read the fucking book. It’s really, really great, masturbating chimp and all.