Finally. I know I've only been reading this book for 4.5 days, but it felt like eternity. I wanted to like this book, I really did. I think Hale makes some great commentaries on human life (see below on educating someone, religion, and the trouble of it/thou during sex). However, he was inaccurate at times, verbose and repetitive (always), and too serious (I think that he was trying to be mock-absurd in the way the Tom Robbins can be absurd, but instead he oftentimes fell flat and instead of making me chuckle I just groaned...I think the most comical character who fell flat in the way I mean is Hilarious Lily who in many ways could have been Hilarious, but instead was just sad).
The whole thing reminded me of Keyes's Flowers for Algernon which I have not read in 15 (or so) years and so I'm gonna re-read that next just to clear my head. Certainly Bruno does not de-evolve, but the process of developing cognizance in this novel reminded me of that story.
So to start with, I will enumerate a few inaccuracy/discrepancies in the logic of the text. One of Bruno's main points about the difference between humans and animals is the acquisition of language. He argues that pre-linguistic creatures do not have the capacity to think. Since they do not have symbolic representations of objects and ideas in their heads, they cannot think or evaluate things outside of the moment in which they occur. Okay, I'll buy that (almost...I won't actually believe it in real life, but I'll give it to him as a precedent on which to build in the story). BUT then he goes on to try to make some contradictory arguments. First he describes how his mother (who is the dumbest chimp he knows...not just an animal but a really dumb one) not only knows and understands that Bruno has a sexual preference for human women but dislikes this preference. Following his own rules for understanding how pre-linguistic creatures thing we have to assume that she can only form these thoughts if (and while) she watched him have sex with a human female...and he does not do this until long after he leaves the zoo. Second, he criticizes his animal family and judges them by human standards (rather than understanding them as animals and chimps) and then at the end seems to longingly wish that he himself had never "evolved". If he knows that they do not have the capacity to think, why would he hold them accountable to mores that he himself (hello he rapes Lydia and states that he doesn't understand what he did wrong) has trouble accepting during the process of his "evolution." I think Hale was trying to have us see Bruno develop socially through the book but there is a problem with using the mechanism of a hindsight speaking character. Bruno at the beginning is the same as Bruno at the end. If Hale wanted to show development, he needed to make this third-person narration, not pseudo-autobiographical. When he is a chimp he would not evaluate his family negatively; at the end once he is disillusioned with humanity he also would not evaluate his family negatively. It is only during his middle "glory" years living with Lydia that he would frown upon their animalism...and the book is not written in that time frame or mind set.
I also had a problem with Bruno's general knowledge base. Silly me, I wanted to know how he would have come to discover Rotpeter's history. Rotpeter is not gifted with language and would not have been able to tell him and the humans who worked at the zoo would not know this info...so from whence does it come and how does Bruno learn it? I was also frequently frustrated throughout when he didn't know a word. I know, I know he very eloquently argues about all the holes in the erudition of an autodidact (see I can use big words too), BUT really, this monkey can quote Shakespeare and argue philosophy but he has never heard of a frisbee and so must describe as a "brightly colored saucer-like object"? Really? He also doesn't know about CAT scans and is surprised that there are any cities other than Chicago. Really? In all his reading he never stumbled across New York? Really?
I felt like Hale was trying to make a lot of interesting comments about human society, life, and relationships and came up with this mechanism as a new way to get an outsider's perspective. But I think it would have been better if it was truly an outsider. I think a modern ET who developed language and was able to see the scientific community in this way would have been a better tool. I just felt like there would have been fewer clunky pieces and an overall more workable framework if he simply had an alien analyze our ridiculous humanity.
I also have trouble with a main character who is ultimately only liked by two people, both of whom have mental issues...Leon is described as and arguably is at least partly insane and Lydia has a brain tumor. I did think it was clever that Hale makes Lydia mentally incompetent; it makes those of us who find it completely and totally unbelievable that she would fuck her chimp allow for it without criticism. After all she was not in her right mind. I know that Bruno argues that they are in love, but how can she be in love with a creature that does not speak (English or sign language) and is simply a child-like pet? Maybe later once he starts talking she could fall in love with him, but even then he is pre-literate and much more like a fuzzy 4 year old than a partner. Even at the end of their relationship after he has spent a few years reading and becoming "cultured" he still is completely dependent on her and incapable of any adult action.
So, I'm left with three good quotes which comment on the human condition..there are points in the text in which he contradicts these, but I'm not going to search for and present here because this review is already long enough and this way I get to leave on a positive note:
On human sexuality: "Thus was my lesson in human sexual morality. I had to learn this. When my father, Rotpeter, wanted to stick his dick in something, he simply went and did it. I had to learn restraint. I had to learn empathy. When it came to sex, I had to make the Buberian moral shift from I/it to I/thous. That is, a soul is a thou an a body is an it. The problem with this construct is, of course, that when sex enters into any relationship between two conscious beings with sufficient theory of mind to cognize the consciousness of the other, we must deal with the philosophical difficulty of seeing another person as an it and a thou at the same time. I have since noticed that not even most humans can do this. At the height of passion, animal solipsism is absolute, and everything but the I is an it."
On education: "All real learning, all education, Gwen, is self-motivated. Teaching helps, yes, but teaching students by force, by pushing, is as good as preaching a sermon to a congregation of stones."
On religious zealots: "What in the world is wrong with a civilization in which we must take these people at all seriously? Why must we listen to their 'opinions'? Why must we suffer them to jam their feet in the doors of our discourse? Why must we respectfully demur to their 'faith'? why allow their voices into our politics? why must these intolerant people be tolerated? I refuse to tolerate them! I swear, Gwen, in my least 'tolerant' moods I sometimes think that any truly just and wise society would regard religious faith not as some deep noble kind philosophical lofty spiritual bullshit, but merely as an official, DSM-certified mental illness! Throw it right in there with schizophrenia! Why not?"
I think I would like Hale as a person and I think he has a lot of good things to say, I just wish he had done a better job of thinking through the mechanism that he used to say it.