The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore


By Benjamin Hale

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Bruno Littlemore is quite unlike any chimpanzee in the world. Precocious, self-conscious and preternaturally gifted, young Bruno, born and raised in a habitat at the local zoo, falls under the care of a university primatologist named Lydia Littlemore. Learning of Bruno’s ability to speak, Lydia takes Bruno into her home to oversee his education and nurture his passion for painting. But for all of his gifts, the chimpanzee has a rough time caging his more primal urges. His untimely outbursts ultimately cost Lydia her job, and send the unlikely pair on the road in what proves to be one of the most unforgettable journeys — and most affecting love stories — in recent literature. Like its protagonist, this novel is big, loud, abrasive, witty, perverse, earnest and amazingly accomplished. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore goes beyond satire by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.


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[The following manuscript contains the unedited transcripts of the memoirs of Bruno Littlemore, as dictated to Gwendolyn Gupta between September 9, 2007, and August 8, 2008, at the Zastrow National Primate Research Center, Eastman, GA 31024]

Part One

… But man, proud man,

Dress'd in a little brief authority,

Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd,

His glassy essence, like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven

As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,

Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Shakespeare, Measure for Measure


My name is Bruno Littlemore: Bruno I was given, Littlemore I gave myself, and with some prodding I have finally decided to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs. I give this gift with the aim and hope that they will enlighten, enchant, forewarn, instruct, and perchance even entertain. However, I find the physical tedium of actually writing unendurable. I never bothered learning to type any more adroitly than by use of the embarrassingly primitive "hunt-and-peck" method, and as for pen and paper, my hands are awkwardly shaped and tire easily of etching out so many small, fastidious markings. That is why I have decided to deliver my memoirs by dictation. And because voice recorders detest me for the usual reasons, I must have an amanuensis. Right now it is eleven fifteen in the morning on a drably nondescript day in September; I am lying partially supine and extremely comfortably on a couch, my shoes off but my socks on, a glass of iced tea tinkling peacefully in my hand, and there is a soft-spoken young woman named Gwen Gupta sitting in this very room with me, recording my words in a yellow notepad with a pencil and a laserlike sense of concentration. Gwen, my amanuensis, is a college student employed as an intern at the research center where I am housed. It is she who acts as midwife to these words which my mind conceives and my lungs and tongue bear forth, delivering them from my mouth and by the sheer process of documentation imbuing them with the solemnity and permanence of literature.

Now to begin. Where should I begin, Gwen? No, don't speak. I'll begin with the first time I met Lydia, because Lydia is the reason why I am here.

But before I begin, I guess I should briefly describe my surroundings and current predicament. One could say that I am in captivity, but such a word implies that I have a desire to be elsewhere, which I do not. If one were to ask me, "Bruno, how are you?" I would most likely reply, "Fine," and that would be the truth. I know I'm well provided for. I like to think of myself not as imprisoned, but in semiretirement. As you already know, I am an artist, which my keepers recognize and respect, allowing me to occupy myself with the two arts most important to my soul: painting and the theatre. As for the former, the research center generously provides me with paints, brushes, canvases, etc. My paintings even sell in the world beyond these walls—a world that holds little remaining interest for me—where, I'm told, they continue to fetch substantial prices, with the proceeds going to the research center. So I make them rich, the bastards. I don't care. To hell with them all, Gwen: I paint only to salve the wounds of my troubled heart; the rest is grubby economics. As for the latter—the theatre—I am preparing to stage a production of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, directed by and starring myself in the title role, which our modest company will perform in a few weeks for the research center staff and their friends and families. Broadway it's not, nor even off-Broadway—but it satiates (in a small way) a lust for the spotlight that may be integral to understanding my personality. My friend Leon Smoler visits me occasionally, and on these occasions we laugh and reminisce. Sometimes we play backgammon, and sometimes we converse on philosophical subjects until the smoky blue edge of dawn creeps into visibility through my windows. The research center allows me to live in all the comfort and relative privacy that any human being could expect to want—more, really, considering that my mind is free from the nagging concerns of maintaining my quotidian persistence in the world. I am even allowed outside whenever I please, where, when I am in my most Thoreauvian moods, I am allowed to roam these woods in spiritual communion with the many trees that are thick-trunked with antiquity and resplendent with drooping green mosses and various fungi. The research center is located in Georgia, a place I had never been to before I was relocated here. As far as I can determine from my admittedly limited perspective, Georgia seems to be a pleasant enough and lushly pretty place, with a humid subtropical climate that proves beneficial to my constitution. Honestly, on most days it feels like I am living in some kind of resort, rather than being confined against my will due to a murder that I more or less committed (which, by the way, could time be reversed, I would recommit without hesitation). Because this more-or-less murder is a relatively unimportant event in my life, I will not bother to mention it again until much later, but it is at least ostensibly accountable for my current place of residence, and therefore also for your project. I am, however, no ordinary criminal. I suppose the reason I'm being held in this place is not so much to punish as to study me, and I presume this is the ultimate aim of your project. And I can't say I blame them—or you—for wanting to study me. I am interesting. Mine is an unusual case.

As a matter of fact, Gwen, I should apologize to you for my initial refusals to grant your repeated requests for an interview. Just speaking these opening paragraphs has made me realize that nothing I've ever yet experienced better satisfies my very human desire for philosophical immortality than your idea of recording this story—catching it fresh from the source, getting it right, setting it down for the posterity of all time: my memories, my loves, my angers, my opinions, and my passions—which is to say, my life.

Now to begin. I will begin with my first significant memory, which is the first time I met Lydia. I was still a child at the time. I was about six years old. She and I immediately developed a rapport. She picked me up and held me, kissed my head, played with my rubbery little hands, and I wrapped my arms around her neck, gripped her fingers, put strands of her hair in my mouth, and she laughed. Maybe I had already fallen in love with her, and the only way I knew to express it was by sucking on her hair.

Before I begin properly, I feel like the first thing I have to do for you here is to focus the microscope of your attention on this specimen, this woman, Lydia Littlemore. Much later, in her honor, I would even assume her lilting three-syllable song of a surname. Lydia is important: her person, her being, the way she occupied a room, the way she did and continues to occupy so much space in my consciousness. The way she looked. The way she smelled. That ineffably gorgeous smell simmering off her skin—it was entirely beyond my previous olfactory experience, I didn't know what to make of it. Her hair. It was blond (that was exotic to me, too). Her hair was so blond it looked electrically bright, as if, maybe, in the dark, her hair would naturally glow forth with bioluminescent light, like a lightning bug, or one of those dangly-headed deep-sea fish. On that day when we first met, she had, as was her wont, most of this magnificent electric blond stuff gathered behind her head just under the bump of her skull in a no-nonsense ponytail that kept it from getting in her eyes but allowed three or four threads to escape; these would flutter around her face, and she had a habit of always sliding them behind the ridges of her ears with her fingers. Futilely!—because they would soon be shaken loose again, one by one, or all at once when she snatched off the glasses she sometimes wore. When Lydia was at work, her hands were endlessly at war with her hair and her glasses. Off come the glasses, fixed to a lanyard by the earpieces, and now (look!) they dangle from her neck like an amulet, these two prismatic wafers of glass glinting at you from the general vicinity of those two beacons of womanhood—her breasts!—and now (look!) they're on again, slightly magnifying her eyes, and if you walk behind her you will see the lanyard hanging limp between her shoulder blades. On they went, off they came, never resting for long either on the bridge of her nose (where they left their two ovular footprints on the sides of the delicate little bone that she massaged with her fingers when she felt a headache coming) or hanging near her heart. Once, in fact—this was much later, when I was first learning my numbers—I had briefly become obsessed with counting things, and I counted the number of times Lydia took her glasses off and put them on again during an hour of watching her at work, and then I counted the number of times she tucked the wisps of hair behind her ears. The results: in a one-hour period, Lydia put her glasses on thirty-one times and removed them thirty-two, and she tucked the wisp or wisps of hair behind her ear or ears a total of fifty-three times. That's an average of nearly once a minute. But I think these habits were merely indicative of a nervous discomfort she felt around her colleagues, because when she and I were alone together, unless she was performing some task demanding acute visual focus (such as reading), the glasses remained in their glasses-case and her hair hung down freely.

I will speak now of her body, style of dress, and general comportment. She was, obviously, much taller than me, but not ridiculously tall for a human woman, maybe about five feet five, though the birdlike litheness of her limbs gave the illusion that she was taller. To me, anyway. She exercised often, ate a salubrious diet, and never felt tempted by any of the body-wrecking superfluities that so easily sing me out to sea, so innately deaf was she to their siren songs; for instance, she drank only socially, and even then not much. Her hands were knobby-knuckled and almost masculine in aspect, with fingernails frayed from light labor and habitual gnawing (one of her few vices); these were pragmatic hands, nothing dainty about them; hers was not the sort of hand a pedestrian poet might describe as being "alabaster," nor the sort of hand onto the ring finger of which one might slip a diamond ring in a TV commercial advertising relucent diamonds wrested from the soil of darkest Africa. She dressed sharply, a bit conservatively. She dressed stylishly but not in a way that drew outrageous attention to herself. No, ostentation was not her style. (Ostentation is my style.) Black turtleneck sweaters were her style. Light tan sateen blazers were her style. Flannel scarves were her style. She shopped at Marshall Field's. She wore hairpins. She wore sandals in the summer. She wore boots in the winter. She wore jewelry only on special occasions, though she wore on all occasions an effortless aura of beatific radiance. She looked good in green.

I will speak now of the sound of her voice. It made its impression on me the very first day we met. Most people would speak to me in that putrid bouncing-inflection singsong that adults use when condescending to children or animals. But not Lydia. No, she spoke to me in the same sober conversational tone of voice she would have used to address anyone else, and this easily won my loyalty, at first. Her voice had a faint but discernible twang in it; she'd originated from a family of noble hardworking bozos from some godforsaken backwater town in rural Arkansas, but she had fled her background upward and away into education much in the same way as I've fled mine, and she spoke like a young woman with a doctorate from the University of Chicago, which is what she was. She spoke in grammatical sentences, with punctuation marks audible in them: periods, parentheses, colons, even the sometime semicolon. Listening to her voice was like listening to a piece of classical music being performed by a full symphony orchestra with one slightly out-of-tune banjo in it, lonesomely plinking along to the opus somewhere in the string section.

And I will speak now of her face. Lydia's face was etiolated and Scandinavian-looking enough that she wouldn't have looked out of place in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman movie, though her eyes were not the pellucid blue ones that you would expect to see in the head of the woman I've thus far described. Her eyes were gold-flecked green. Her irises begged comparisons to tortoise shells, to the corollas of green roses with bronze-dipped petals, to two green-gold stars exploding in another galaxy, observed through a telescope a billion years later. On her driver's license they were "hazel." She had a long face with a lot of distance between her thin mouth and the bottommost tip of her slightly cleft chin. Her skin had the sort of pallor that pinks rather than tans in the sun. Two delicately forking blue veins were barely noticeable on her temples. The bridge of her nose was a perfectly straight diagonal line, but the tip of it was blunt and upturned at an angle just obtuse enough to allow, from a directly frontal view, easy gazing into the depths of her nostrils. Her forehead was wide and featured a very subtle bump above the supraorbital ridge. Her cheekbones were not high and emerged to definition only in the harshest of lighting. She seldom wore makeup, and when she did, it was just hints and touches, because slathering too much ornamental glop on that face of hers would have diminished its effect rather than enhance it. Her snaggletoothed smile served as a memento of childhood poverty. She was twenty-seven years old when I first met her, and thirty-four when she died.

But why—why have I spent so much energy, so much of both my time and yours describing this woman, having probably succeeded only in distorting rather than elucidating her image in your mind's eye? Because Lydia was my First Love. Make sure you write that with a capital L, Gwen. And why don't you go ahead and capitalize the F in first as well. Because Lydia was my capital-O Only capital-L Love, or at least the only Only Love I would ever dare to capitalize.

Now we may begin in earnest. New chapter, please.


The first time I met Lydia, I was so young and uncontaminated by the world that I didn't even know I was participating in a scientific experiment. I was brought into a strange blank-white room: everyone's shoes squeaked on the hard shiny floor, and the high-frequency buzzing of fluorescent lights overhead made me jittery and discombobulated. The three of us—I, Bruno; my idiot brother, Cookie; and little Céleste—were let out of the cage in which they had conveyed us to this alien room, to allow us a little time to acclimate ourselves to these surroundings at our leisure, to accustom our eyes to the stinging brightness, to meet the scientists. That's when I met Lydia: she bent to the floor and held her arms open for me, and I ran to her and climbed into them, and for the rest of the day that was where I stayed, cradled in her arms, breathing her amazing scent that I even then must have found erotic—except when she was too busy with her work, or when they ripped us apart so they could run their moronic experiments on me.

I suppose I shouldn't say moronic, because that experiment was what marked me as different right from the beginning. Of course I had no idea what was going on at the time. I had not yet acquired language, so I couldn't have articulated my thoughts. (That, by the way, is the ironic thing about acquiring language relatively late in life: words don't exist to adequately describe what it's like when that tempest of wordless thoughts whirling around in your head suddenly snaps to definition; that great hop from prelinguistic to linguistic is squarely in the realm of the ineffable.) As far as I knew, all that was going on was this: I was taken into a small, empty white room with a long rectangular reflective panel embedded in one wall. (I now realize this was a one-way mirror, behind which another scientist was probably watching me like a voyeur with an eye to a keyhole.) The scientist who had conducted me into the room was not the woman whom I would later come to know as Lydia (was that you watching from behind the mirror, Lydia?), but some droll old fat bearded sot who held no special interest for me. There was a transparent plastic box on the floor. The scientist produced from the pocket of his white coat—with the excessively theatrical flourish of an amateur magician—a peach.

A peach, Gwen—he was my serpent and I was his Eve. There we were, me in my prelapsarian nudity and he in his demonic white coat, tempting me with fruit coveted but prohibited. The only difference was environmental: we'd swapped sexy Edenic lushness for the sterile whitewashed walls of Science. Also, that particular fruit is semiotically associated with the female pudenda, isn't it? Isn't that why Cézanne painted them?—Still Life with Peaches?—why, that's just a quivering bowlful of vulvae sweating on the breakfast table, waiting for you to eat them up!

But the peach in question: so he takes, this scientist does, he takes a juicy piggish bite out of it and starts making yummy-yum-yum noises, mmmmmm, rubbing his belly, trying to goad my jealousy, you see. And as I recall, it worked. I was a simpler creature then. I remember wanting the peach at that moment more than anything. Hell, I would have sold my soul for a peach. (And in a way I did.) I remember hating, no, loathing that old smug fat imperious blob for the way he lorded the fruit over me so. So he took his bite, breaking the skin, releasing into the room the ambrosial aroma of that sticky wet fleshy treat, and then he, bastard, pushed me away when I reached for it. Then, turning to the box—transparent plastic box on the floor, remember?—he operated some sort of device which made the lid spring open, placed the peach inside and shut the lid. I was watching his actions with curiosity and a motley of deadly sins: greed, envy, gluttony, lust. Then, the demonstration: the box-opening mechanism consisted of a button and a lever; he pressed the button; then he rapped on the lid of the box three times with his knuckles, like this—knock, knock, knock; then he flipped the lever and the lid of the box popped open. He reached in and—again, moving his arms in such a grossly histrionic manner it was as if he wanted the people in the nosebleed seats to see what he was doing and making a face like Look, Bruno, what do we have here?—extracted the peach.

Again I reached for it. Again he pushed me away. Then he put the peach back in the box, promptly left the room and pulled the door shut behind him. Bruno was alone.

Alone with the box, with the peach clearly visible but locked away inside, forbidden to Bruno. I looked at it a moment. I pressed the button, knocked thrice on the lid, flipped the lever, opened the box and removed the peach. Did I dare to eat a peach? Indeed I did.

In this way I fell from my state of innocence.

The door opened, I was escorted out and my brother, Cookie, in, where I understand the same procedure was repeated on him. A little while later all three of us—Cookie, Céleste, and I—had made it through the first round, and I was taken back into the room, until they decided enough time had elapsed to renew my appetite.

Only this time—this time, it was Lydia—gorgeous-smelling Lydia, my human peach—who attended me into the little room with the box. Just being alone in a room with that woman was enough. And now she removed a peach from the pocket of her white coat, she took a sopping wet bite out of it and took her sweet time chewing. Then she placed the peach inside the box, waited a moment, pressed the button, knocked her knuckles on the lid three times, click-click-click, flipped the lever that opened the box and retrieved the peach. After locking it up again she left the room, though I entreated her to stay. Alone, I again in turn pressed the button, tap-tap-tapped, flipped the lever and proceeded to feast: but this peach tasted so much richer than the first, as it was imbued with the magic of her touch—with her lips, no less—her tongue!—I had seen that woman put her mouth on this object! The vicarious contact made me insane with desire. I would have preferred her to chew the peach to a pulp and sensuously ooze it intermingled with her own fluids into my mouth. I ate every shred of the thing, every last ort and fiber and dribble of nectar and then sucked on the stone for an hour after and became enraged—enraged!—when the other scientists tried to take it from me: I kept it securely in my cheek and would under no circumstances relinquish it, until, yes, Lydia, Lydia herself coaxed me to surrender it by holding her hand to my mouth, and, finally, I willingly spat the stone, slick with my saliva, into the cup of her pretty hand.

Anyway, this bizarre and (to me at the time) unfathomable procedure was repeated again and again all day until it looked like we'd all had our fill of their fucking peaches.

Much later, Dr. Lydia Littlemore would explain to me why my performance on that day had marked me as extraordinary. In retrospect I understand now what I could only feel at the time. As I've said, I did not yet have language. This is not to say that I did not have a consciousness in those days, or that I did not have thoughts—I certainly did—but I had none of these traps in which to capture and keep them—words. Back then my thoughts could only trickle through my head in a liquid state; trying to think clearly was like trying to drink water out of cupped hands: most of it drips through your fingers before you've really had a chance to drink, and you remain thirsty still—thirsty, and ignorant. When my consciousness was solidified enough to understand, Lydia told me that I had participated in a psychological experiment they were running on two groups, human infants and preadolescent chimpanzees. The experiment goes like this. You have this transparent Plexiglas box with a door that can be opened by a mechanism requiring a two-step process to unlatch: press the button and flip the lever. You place inside the box something the infant or chimpanzee is supposed to want, in my case a peach—and this, in my opinion, is the most problematic aspect of the experiment. What complex being will always want a peach? Suppose I wasn't hungry? Am I supposed to be a creature of such brainlessly insatiate appetite that given the opportunity I would cram every last peach on the planet into my ravenous maw? Later in my life, when I was sitting in on an introductory course in microeconomics at the University of Chicago, I realized that economists tend to think about their fellow sapiens sapiens in exactly these terms. Rational choice theory, so they call it: Homo economicus. Fools! The thing that defines us rational creatures, like you and me, Gwen, is precisely the fact that we're not always rational.

But I digress. So you put the peach in the box and then demonstrate to the subject how to open it. The scientist presses the button, taps three times on the lid of the box and flips the lever. Then leave the test subject alone and watch what he does. Then repeat this procedure ad nauseam on the largest test sampling you can get. The objective of the experiment was to see whether the human- or ape-child figures out that the tapping-on-the-box bit is an unnecessary step. Their typically anthropo-chauvinist hypothesis was that all your innately superior little human snots would quit tapping on the stupid box before the chimps. And the results were exactly the opposite of their predictions. All but one of the chimps (and they tested more than fifty of us and as many human infants) quickly figured out that the tapping shtick was a superfluous waste of time, and thus aborted the measure from the box-opening procedure on the second or third trial run. A few of the chimpanzee subjects, my older brother, Cookie, among them (and this sort of behavior is characteristic of him), on the third trial run got the box open simply by picking it up and smashing it against a wall. The humans, though—the human babies would faithfully tap on the box every time. Every one, every time. Now, Gwen, what do you think this means? I'll tell you. It means this: for the human test subjects the whole thing was less about the reward than it was about the process. You see? It wasn't so much that they wanted the peach as to participate in this enigmatic ritual, to perform the rite, to say their prayers. Because it's you humans who have your absurdities of faith, your superstitions, your banshees and hobgoblins, your necromancies and haruspices, your charms and potions and voodoo dolls and magic mirrors and boogiemen, you who infantilize the universe by vainly searching for celestial answers to earthly questions in the movements of the stars, you who have your signs and symbols, your signifiers and signifieds, you who cast a terror-stricken backward glance into the darkness and ask yourselves who is that third who walks always beside you, you who chant your incantations, kiss the ring and cross yourselves, sear images into your flesh and poke holes in yourselves, hack off parts of your bodies and paint yourselves blue, burn witches and sacrifice your firstborns, scream into the whirlwind and wrestle with angels till the break of dawn! And they thought we would be the ones to continue squandering a few precious seconds that stood between us and those delicious peaches by tapping on the box even when the action obviously affected no empirical change upon the object? Absurd! It is only rubbing on the lamp! It is only magic. It is only religion. It is only the shadow of the hand of God. It is only one more example illustrating how feebly you people know yourselves.

Anyway, point being: who was the one and only chimpanzee among the hundred-some-plus sampling of members of my own birth species, Pan troglodytes, who, like the human children, never ceased to tap on the box? That's right, c'est moi. I, Bruno, somehow understood on some fundamental level (as Lydia realized in hindsight, after the experiment was over and the unexpected results had been properly tabulated, scrutinized and pondered over until they succeeded in twisting some anthropo-chauvinist take out of the data) what it means to be human. And Lydia remembered me—me, Bruno, the chimpanzee who had fallen in love with her—and she sought me out, and found me, and began to bring me out of my animal darkness.


I think it had been some months since the experiments, some months since the Plexiglas box and that daylong procession of peaches, when Lydia came back for me. I had been returned to my family of uneducated slobs, to my mother and my father, my aunt and my uncle, my brother and Céleste. All of them sadly ignorant, broken and disaffected by lifetimes spent in diaspora.


On Sale
Feb 2, 2011
Page Count
592 pages

Benjamin Hale

About the Author

Benjamin Hale is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he received a Provost’s Fellowship to complete his novel, which also went on to win a Michener-Copernicus Award. He has been a night shift baker, a security guard, a trompe l’oeil painter, a pizza deliverer, a cartoonist, an illustrator and a technical writer. He grew up in Colorado and now lives in New York.

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