Talking to Benjamin Hale

Posted by Jason Diamond

There comes a point when you know something has begun to slowly reach the masses — or at least the sort of masses you’re comfortable with it reaching.  Last year it was Joshua Cohen’s Witz, or as a bunch of people called it, “the huge Jewish book.”

The other day I told somebody that Benjamin Hale was reading at our upcoming Vol. 1 Brooklyn Story Series (with Adam Wilson and Julia Jackson, on Thursday at Brooklyn Winery.  Co-curated by our friends at Fortnight Journal).  Their reply to me was “Didn’t he write the book about the talking monkey that has sex with a human?”  I noted that it was actually a chimpanzee, and that, yes, they were talking about the same book that the New York Times seemed to like, and that caught the attention of The New Yorker.

Hale’s The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, is a book that deserves your attention.  One person described the book’s plot to me as “reverse Kafkaesque.” When I asked him what he’d meant by that, he said, “dunno, it just sounded right.”  But after finishing the book, I can’t totally disagree with the statement, even if I’m not totally sure what it meant.

Benjamin and I talked about the trepidation that goes along with writing a novel like Bruno, mistaking one King Louie for another, and songs about primates.

The first thing I want to say is that I’m sort of sick of fictional primates being portrayed as funny, and lovable. Bruno seems to be a bit of a curmudgeon…

That’s because Bruno is almost me.  Or at least my worst parts.  I knew I wanted Bruno’s character to be as fully developed, emotionally, intellectually, and so on, as one would hope to make a fully drawn human character.  I wanted him to have his own thoughts, opinions, anxieties, perversions, vanities, weaknesses, insecurities, angers, fears and desires.  So I gave him mine.

It’s pretty ambitious to write a first novel based on the dictated story of the world’s first chimpanzee with the ability to speak.  Was there some point in the middle of writing it where you said to yourself, “this is probably a crazy idea” or did you start writing, and not look back?

I was saying that to myself the entire time I was writing it, yes. There was a certain point when, during the financial collapse in the fall of ’08, I had the thought that someday my grandchildren might ask me what I was doing at the time, and I would have to answer, “Well, kids, as the economy collapsed in the world outside, I was holed up in a bat-infested attic in Iowa City, Iowa, sinking steadily deeper into debt and not giving an iota of thought to the future while feverishly writing a six-hundred page novel about a talking chimp.  Kids, I am not a role model.”

I noticed two interesting things that weren’t part of the story, but I felt I should ask about.

1) The use of a King Louie quote as an epigraph.

A.  Do you listen to a lot of King Louie?

Well, King Louie is a fictional character in the Disney film, The Jungle Book.  He’s voiced by Louie Prima, of whom I’m a tremendous fan.  That song, “I Wanna Be Like You” I think has to be the best song in any Disney movie, ever.  It had a profound affect on me as a kid.  “Now I’m the king of the swingers / oh, the jungle VIP / but I’ve reached the top and had to stop / and that’s what botherin’ me!”  That sentiment runs throughout my novel.

[Note: I thought he was using a quote from this King Louie.)

B.  Why has popular music turned its back on primates?  It feels like so many songs used to have references to monkeys and apes, but aside from King Louie and maybe that Peter Gabriel song from the 80s, nada.

I don’t know!  Here’s a small playlist of primatological songs that I can think of.

1. The Kinks – “Apeman”
2. The Rolling Stones – “Monkey Man”
3. Toots and the Maytals – “Monkey Man” (different song, same idea)
4. Nirvana – “Very Ape”

Can’t think of any others, but I’m all ears if you can think of more.

No.  Did you know a lot about chimpanzees prior to writing the book?  Did you have to do a lot of research?

Chimps have been a lifelong fascination of mine, but yes, I did a ton of research, and learned a lot more while writing and researching the book.  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, not just about primatology: stuff about anthropology, philosophy of consciousness, philosophy of language, linguistics, semiotics.

What are you working on right now?
I have a finished collection of stories on deck, and I’m just sort of sitting on that while waiting to see what happens with Bruno.  Meanwhile, I’m working on another novel, but it’s still in such an inchoate state I don’t want to jinx myself by talking about it to much.  But it’s essentially about a sommelier, a weed dealer, and the Columbine massacre.  No talking animals in this one, yet.