Y’all remember I was given a book, apparently by the publishers. I haven’t finished it because I have been too busy to read (and it is too massive to carry out and about), but I have read enough to have opinions. Of course.
I liked the book from the start, because the narrative voice is irritable, and I am also irritable.
But I don’t want to talk about everything yet, because I haven’t read everything and because I have other things I want to do today anyway. There’s a lot to say about this book! Which I haven’t introduced yet actually – it’s The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, and it’s available for £0.99 on the link there, as an ebook. I advise a purchase, as I advised a purchase to the kid who started talking to me on the train a few weeks ago (he looked like Jemaine from the Conchords only blond, and seemed a decent sort): buy the ebook to see if you like it, then buy the paperback if you do. Because paperbacks are nicer (you may disagree, of course).
Ignore the other book. I was going to talk about both at once, but now I don’t want to.
Bruno is a chimp who was unusually intelligent, and who was educated and given the opportunities to become unusually intelligent for a human. He walks on two legs, he speaks, he judges people, he enjoys amateur dramatics, he has done a murder.
Bruno is the narrative voice. You can find him at Bourgeois_ape on twitter. We’ve corresponded.
Bruno is ‘a sexual being’. He’s strongly sexual; he talks about art in terms of sex, childhood in terms of sex, family in terms of sex, humanity in terms of sex, his lost love Lydia (a human) in rainbow terms of sex, observed social mechanisms in terms of sex, sex sex sex. He tells his life story in a sexual chronology. It’s not ribald, it’s just very physical.
Another thing about Bruno, which is necessary to make the book more than a very weird porno, is that he is compassionate and respectful of humanity (how ironic). I described the book (as loosely as possible because we WERE on a train) to Blond Jemaine as not so much being about the human condition but more about the idea of consent, in general. Bruno’s life is like a study on why the Prime Directive should be followed, but of course Bruno doesn’t seem like someone who wants to have his experiences taken away or undone. I reiterate, I haven’t finished the book.
When you mix a narrator who is enormously invested in exploring (perhaps as a product of his fictional life before as a specific area of personal study) consent and personal/interpersonal boundaries with a narrator who has this grasping earthy sexual troll inside his chimp-tailored trousers you get a reader who is having a lot of thoughts about sexual assault. There are (so far) three separate examples of somebody putting their gratification before the agency of the object of their lust.
One involves a frog.
And then there was the Frog Incident. There was this frog—wait. Not now. Not just yet.—
Bruno Littlemore (@Bourgeois_Ape) July 25, 2011
The frog incident comes (as I remember) fairly early in the book, before we’ve had much of a chance to get to know Bruno. Before we’ve really had any reason to feel sympathy or kind feelings towards him (especially if “we” are a reader who is not made fonder of a narrator by shared irritability). It’s about the same time that we learn he’s done a murder, I think, and also when we’ve already heard about how much of a monster he has raging downstairs. A horny pervert killer chimp.
Bruno’s father, who is horrible and also a normal chimp, pleasures himself with a frog. In front of the visitors to the zoo he finds a frog and then he rapes it. Bruno calls it rape; he places himself in sympathy with a small animal which has been (in his words) sexually assaulted. He describes the frog with brutal tenderness and tells us that he euthanised it. The willingness for a male voice to use the word rape with absolute condemnation and sympathy for the victim transforms the book from an engaging snitty stroppy speculative-fictional autobiography into an immersive compassionate thoughtful autobiography by a human chimp who has personal depth. Suddenly, he’s good people.
The mind-shift that it forces you to do (ascribing the ability to be raped to a non-human such as a frog) is important too – Bruno’s not human, technically, what an interesting story. But.. if a frog can be raped, and clearly it can, then animal/human and sentient/non-sentient and sympathetic/unsympathetic are a little higher up in the air and consideration for your fellow live being means reaching through one less sticky membrane.
There’s another example later that I want to tell you about. There is far more to the book than just these, so I hope the spoilers will be forgiven. The third example – which I’m not going to talk about – is the biggest and most complex.
Here, I’ll read it to you, incident number two:
It’s rare that a genuinely blameless character commits a sexual assault and it’s still acknowledged, by victim, perpetrator and authority, as an assault and an overstep.
I mean, it’s rare in life that it’s acknowledged all round when a blameful person commits a sexual assault on purpose. But this innocent guilty character is important and useful, because it illustrates flawlessly how intent is not diamonds.
There are two types of blame: internal and external. Internal racism vs external racism; internal sexism vs external sexism, internal ableism vs external ableism. Often they go hand in hand and often one feeds the other, but you can have a person who is an ideological racist, sexist, ableist, but who does not victimise people based on these personally held opinions. You can hold on to (by accident, by ignorance, by laziness, by design) internalised sexist thoughts but promote women and work for the progress of feminism. Then again, you can not think that one colour of people is better than another, but still make racist jokes or work within or for systems that keep people of particular races down. You can think “oh, I have nothing against gay people, I love my gay friends, they should be allowed to get married.. but.. gay characters would just upset people, and wouldn’t sell, so I can’t have more than one or two in my world-famous story line-up of hundreds”. What you think is internal; what you do is external. Just because you aren’t being internally blameful DOES NOT MEAN that it’s impossible for you to be externally blameful. You can agree that something is wrong, but STILL DO IT.
Intent can matter, it can matter very much. But intent does not trump action.
Bruno, in the flashback, does not understand social rules or about how personhood means that you only get to explore another’s body as much as they invite you to. He does not know that it’s inappropriate to sniff at somebody’s genitals. Bruno in the present, Bruno telling the story, acknowledges without question that attempting to sniff a woman’s crotch is inappropriate and that it was a thing that he did that hurt the person whom the crotch belonged to. He knows it was right that he was punished. He knows that he caused her painful embarrassment. He knows, and he expresses to the reader, that despite his lack of intention to hurt, nevertheless he did hurt. I can’t tell you how much of a balm that is to read. If you know anyone who doesn’t understand or accept the internal/external distinction, and who has the fortitude to read a massive book (tell them it’s about a chimp who has sex with a woman, worrrr?), give them this and hope that they learn.
Secondly, this scene is a perfect example of how and why the reaction of an audience (classroom or courtroom or..) or confidant matters to a person who has been assaulted. Sexual assault or harassment does not end the moment the touch leaves or the voice quiets. It remains for as long as its effects remain and it exists in the context in which is is allowed to exist. If you refuse to take somebody’s invasion seriously, you are sinning against them. You are doing a separate, harmful act, upon that person.
Crowd cruelty is awful. Copmparing a microcosm of modern rape culture to the burning of accused witches is retrospectively simple, but the ugly kind of beautiful.
There’s a good interview with the author Benjamin Hale here.
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore: I like it. I recommend it. Thanks “James”!