Author Benjamin Hale on Braveheart, chimp sex and Kafka
We generally don't think much about who is narrating our stories, but in the case of Benjamin Hale's new novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, we have to. Mostly because the narrator is an ape. Hale, who grew up in and around Boulder but who currently lives in New York, will be in town tonight at the Tattered Cover Colfax to read from and talk about the book. We managed to catch up with him beforehand to talk about humor, philosophy, interspecies sex and more.
Westword: Can you talk a little about the premise of the book and how you got to it?
Benjamin Hale: When I started writing the novel, it was my first semester in grad school at the University of Iowa and my girlfriend at the time was living in Chicago, which is a three-hour-ish drive from Iowa City, so I was in Chicago half the time. She was a grad student in architecture, which meant she was really busy, whereas I, an MFA student, had effectively nothing to do (I was supposed to be writing). So while I was waiting for her to finish her work, I would often spend the day in the Lincoln Park Zoo, watching the chimps at the primate house. Sometimes I would sit there and watch them for three, four hours... At the same time I was also getting really into Philip Roth and Saul Bellow (the unofficial novelist laureate of Chicago; the first line of The Adventures of Augie March is "I'm an American, Chicago-born -- Chicago, that somber city..." the book's Chicago setting is in part a bit of an homage to Bellow).
Often I would read in the zoo, when the chimps weren't doing anything. There was one time when I was reading (Philip Roth's) Portnoy's Complaint in the Lincoln Park Zoo Primate House -- I was reading the book and I looked up at the poor chimps stuck in their claustrophobic enclosure during one of those brutal Chicago winters, and an idea was born. It's also kind of a book-length spinoff of the very short Kafka story "A Report to the Academy." But I wanted to see if I could take this absurd, surreal premise and write a novel in which the ape's character is as fully developed -- emotionally, intellectually, etc, and make a fully drawn human character.
WW: What was it like writing from the point of view of an ape?
BH: A blast. Bruno was a very fun mask to put on. I knew I was having a good day writing if I realized I was alone in my room, laughing. As for the fact that the character is an ape? I had to do a lot of thinking about how a conscious being who knows no language might see the world and how to express that through language itself. It's kind of a philosophical pretzel.
WW: At any point did you have a different narrator, or was Bruno always the one you wanted to tell this story through?
BH:It was always Bruno. The whole thing springs from Bruno's voice.
WW: What type of research went into writing the novel?
BH: The most interesting research I did was at the Great Ape Trust, outside of Des Moines, Iowa, just a couple hours' drive from Iowa City. The only ongoing ape language experiments in America happen there. Kanzi, the bonobo, is their most well-known ape. I attended the Decade of the Mind conference at the GAT -- an annual symposium on the science of consciousness -- and went back and visited the apes a few times after that.
William Fields, the current director of the bonobo language research program, was particularly receptive and helpful with my research. I also revisited the chimps at the Lincoln Park Zoo whenever I was in Chicago, and on top of all that, I read piles of books--I probably fed at least two hundred books into my research mill. Frans de Waal's writing was particularly helpful to me, but I also read all kinds of other stuff: anthropology, primatology, philosophy of consciousness, philosophy of language, linguistics, semiotics.
WW: The book feels like it operates on a lot of different levels, allowing casual readers to take away enough to get the story, but still having plenty of allusions to classic literature that avid readers will find a lot to enjoy as well -- was this a conscious choice, or is this just how you write?
BH: It's not always how I write, but Bruno's voice allowed for it. His personality -- a combination of narcissism and insecurity -- makes him always anxious to prove his intelligence. So he sprinkles his story with all those literary references. As for my personal philosophy on outside allusions, I don't know why the hell I was watching this, but I once saw a PBS documentary about the making of the Ken Burns PBS documentary about Lewis and Clark. I think it came on right after the documentary or something.
He mentions there's a moment in the documentary when the voice-over says something like, "And along the way, Lewis and Clark documented for the first time many previously unknown North American flora and fauna..." and the camera zooms in on a page of a journal that includes a sketch of a bird. And Ken Burns says, "The reason we chose that particular page is because that bird is named after him -- that's the Lewis warbler (or whatever it was). We don't take the time to stop and point this out in the documentary, but any birdwatcher seeing that at home would immediately say, 'Why, that's a Lewis warbler!' It's our little gift to the ornithologists of America." And I think a good literary allusion is done in that spirit. It's not crucial to understanding the story, but if you happen to know it, it's like finding a little Easter egg in the grass.
WW: On the same kind of note--you don't shy away from humor throughout this novel, which is refreshing when some of the biggest authors right now are droopy-eyed whiners. What place do you think humor has in storytelling?
BH: Humor is on the side of life. Humor is in the spirit of Falstaff, who noisily invades an epic historical narrative to openly mock the stupidity of all this solemn tragedy. I think the novel is, essentially, a comic form. Hear me out: the novel is written in prose. It's not written in the high-flung mania of ancient epic poets, the professional war-glorifiers whom Blake called the "Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword." If poetry is the written extension of the art of the song, the novel is the written extension of the art of conversation.
Poetry -- be it good or bad -- can suit itself to propaganda, but the spirit of prose fiction -- good prose fiction -- is anti-heroic. It's fitting that arguably the first novel -- Don Quixote -- is a satire on the heroism and romance of an earlier literature. The novel is deeply, hilariously, sweetly, sadly human. It's messy. It's imperfect. It's corporeal. Its characters need to eat and shit, as Don Quixote is disappointed to discover. The novel's deep distrust of heroism is what makes it a poor medium for propaganda. The novel, like comedy (when it's good) usually distrusts authority, and leans toward the secular. I think this is one reason why comedy is always unjustly regarded as a "low" form.
Take movies: in order to get critical respect as a comedian, you've got to be a hyper-cerebral one, like Woody Allen. I saw Tommy Boy again recently, and afterward, I got curious and looked up the 1995 Academy Awards -- the year Tommy Boy came out. It was the year Mel Gibson's Braveheart swept the Oscars. Of course that bloated, fascistic snuff flick would overshadow a modest masterpiece like Tommy Boy.
Braveheart is an emotionally cheap, propagandistic bloodbath -- a film that unthinkingly riles up heroism, honor, patriotism, and all the other dumbest, worst feelings that humans can feel, the same ones that powerful people use to trick other people into dying for them. It's the sort of complete and utter bullshit that gets whored up with the drippings of critical acclaim while in the meantime a great, great man goes critically ignored, someone who made far truer and far better art when he was belly flopping into a coffee table. I'm not at all surprised that the guy who made Braveheart was later revealed to be a raving anti-Semite and otherwise thoroughly nasty human being. This I absolutely believe: It's much healthier for a human soul to get stoned and watch Tommy Boy than to poison it with trash like Braveheart.
WW: Without beating around the bush -- and because people are going to want to know -- we know what it was like to read about interspecies love, but what was it like to write it?
BH: Fun, and absolutely natural. I knew it would happen from page one. I'm honestly a little surprised that people are so icked out by it.
WW: The book has been getting a lot of buzz, including comparisons to some of the classics. How has that experience been? Do you fancy yourself one to keep up with the reviews and everything else?
BH: Well, I do read the reviews -- I can't not, out of curiosity. It's honestly just a strange feeling. It's of course a very, very good, but strange feeling for the main thing you ever wanted to happen in your life and career to actually happen. For the last year or so I've felt like a tourist in the confusing foreign country of my life, wandering around, taking pictures, sampling exotic beverages, pointing at things, trying not to get lost.
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