Sunday 21 August 2011

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale

Bruno Littlemore: linguist, artist, philosopher. A life defined by a soaring mind, yet bound by a restrictive body. Born in downtown Chicago, Bruno's precocity pulls him from an unremarkable childhood, and under the tuition of Lydia, his intellect dazzles a watching world. But when he and his mentor fall in love, the world turns on them with outrage: Bruno is striving to be something he is not, and denying everything that he is. For despite his all too human complexities, dreams and frailties, Bruno's hairy body, flattened nose and jutting brow are, undeniably, the features of a chimpanzee.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore was published back in April, and caused nary a splash as it hit an unsuspecting public. I've seen very few reviews and not many discussion points concerning this novel. It's not been put onto any longlists or shortlists that I'm aware of, and Benjamin Hale has not been feted as one of the bravest debut novelists of recent times.

In my opinion, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore should have exploded into people's consciousness. It should have been reviewed by people who admire both contemporary/literary works and those who appreciate a more speculative bent to their fiction.

I can't even point to a particular reason why it didn't perform as well as it should have. Possibly because this is a large brick of a debut novel, and people these days don't like to put out cash on an unrecognised name. Possibly because the subject matter is so bizarre and, at times, outright taboo.

For me, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore was virtually as challenging a read as comes along. It challenged my perceptions of what it means to be human. It challenged my ideas of science versus art. It shocked me into laughter at times. At other points I was curling my lip in disgust and reading the novel through eyes blinkered by societal norms. This is a bolshy, brazen novel that does not shy away from that final step into offensiveness and darkness.

Bruno is the very definition of an unreliable narrator. He is telling his story to "Gwen", who remains off-screen for the duration of the tale. Everything we find out about Bruno himself and the life he leads is coloured by his own neurosis, arrogance and self-loathing. He is frustrating, witty, compassionate, rambling and often incredibly difficult to read about. Apart from the fact that you spend much of the novel suspending disbelief about the very nature of Bruno and his relationship with Lydia, sometimes Bruno can also be pretty bloody unlikeable. But he is a magnetic narrator, and I remained mesmerised by his story almost all the way through.

I say "almost", because sometimes The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore descends into a rambling mess. Sometimes it feels pretentious. Sometimes the language was wilfully difficult to process - beyond purple prose. When it touches the heights of its prose, though, it is difficult to imagine a better novel. It defies belief that this is a debut novel.

I admired particularly the level of intellect and discussion present in The Evolution of... such as the following passage:

"I hope that the future's scholars of dramaturgy (if indeed such people will exist in the future) will recognise that I, Bruno Littlemore, was the first actor to realise that the role of Caliban should be played through an evolutionary perspective. While I understand The Tempest was first performed in 1612, a good two and a half centuries before the publications of Charles Darwin, on closely studying the text, I find it hard to believe that Shakespeare was not in some way anachronistically informed and even influenced by The Origin of the Species. Time perhaps is not as uninterestingly linear as we imagine, Gwen. Shakespeare was at the very least a clear premonition of his future fellow Englishman. I even go so far as to imagine that the ship in The Tempest is the Beagle, and Prospero's island, Galapagos."

When it was applied in the following passage, it made me snort with laughter:

"We watched the cartoons that take eternal pursuit as their theme: both the amorous pursuit of lover and beloved [...] as well as the violent pursuit of predator and prey: Coyote and Road Runner, Sylvester and Tweety, Tom and Jerry...all that mythic pursuit! - the endless flux of the chase, the magnetic push-and-pull of aggression and defense, of repulsion and desire!...perhaps the true spirit of myth - of Echo and Narcissus, of Achilles and Hector - survives for us, in its pure form, only in cartoons."

So, how to conclude my thoughts on this novel? Probably to say that The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is more than good enough for you to spend money on. Probably also to say that if you were to buy only one more novel this year, you should make it this. It is dark, brave, satirical and surprisingly tender and moving. The story of Bruno Littlemore demands patience and attention, but it is worth every minute.


  1. Ah...

    I gather that I may have misspoken earlier on TSS, then, when I referred to The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore as "a bit of fun" I might read after I'm through with Dan Simmons' Flashback?

    Still reading it though. You can't stop me now! :)

  2. Sounds like a book we could both agree on, for a change!

    Definitely on my list now.