April 2011

Barbara J. King


An Interview with Benjamin Hale

When I was growing up in New Jersey, Iíd watch police shows with my dad -- Hill Street Blues, for example. He was a captain in the anti-organized crime division of the New Jersey State Police, and as much as I loved him it was no fun watching with him because heíd point out everything that seemed unrealistic, or just plain wrong.

As a biological anthropologist, when I read novels about apes, itís sometimes the same way now for me -- I canít lose myself in the story because Iím distracted by the wholly unrealistic depiction of apesí cognitive or emotional lives. With The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, the story of a chimpanzee struggling to evolve into man, my response was the exact opposite, which is kind of fascinating and paradoxical because the book is anything but steeped in a literal reality about apes. Still, I feel that Benjamin Hale has captured something so genuine about apes through Bruno. And, throughout the book, I could identify passages based on studies of individual primatologists and, I think at least, the personalities of individual apes as well.

Last month, I spoke with Benjamin Hale by telephone. We started off by my reading aloud the above paragraph.

How did you prepare, in the primatological sense, for writing Bruno?

First of all Iím so amazingly flattered to hear you say that about apes. That seriously is one of the best compliments that I have ever heard about this book, to hear someone who has made a career studying apes tell me that my research is accurate.

As far as studying apes, the main thing that I did was just to read tons and tons of books about these subjects: about apes, and the philosophy of consciousness, and language. I had always had a lifelong fascination with chimpanzees. I remember when I was a kid I saw this Jane Goodall documentary, I think it was called People of the Forest, a National Geographic documentary from the '80s. There was this one particular moment, where this chimp, Flint, the son of Flo from Gombe, had the chimp equivalent of an Oedipal complex, an obsessive unhealthy attachment to his mother. He clung to his motherís back for a far longer time than chimps usually do. When his mother died when he was an adolescent, she was old, it happens, he just could not accept her death. He refused to eat and refused to sleep and basically died of grief a couple of weeks afterwards. †

I remember being so haunted and disturbed by that when I was a kid. I guess one of the things that so unsettled me was the idea that an animal could be just as crazy as a human being -- essentially to let his emotions overwhelm his evolutionary imperative to live. I still think that says something very powerful and profound about animal consciousness and emotions. That was something that just stuck in my mind. After that, I got obsessed with Jane Goodall, I saw her once when she was speaking for the Roots and Shoots program.

And then years passed. Many years later, I was in the writerís workshop at Iowa. My girlfriend at the time lived in Chicago, in this basement apartment in Lincoln Park. Chicago is about three hours away from Iowa City and so I spent more than half my time in Chicago that year. I would go visit her, and she would have work to do, she was a graduate student in architecture and always swamped with work. While I was waiting for her to finish work, I would walk across the street to the primate house at the Lincoln Park Zoo, and sit there and watch the chimps all day long -- for four or five hours.

I would try to blend in, sit quietly, and watch them interacting among themselves, without spectators in the zoo, and then the way their behavior would change when people were in the zoo. Sometimes I would bring a book for times when they werenít doing anything or sleeping. At the time, I was really into Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. I was sitting there in the Lincoln Park Zoo reading Portnoyís Complaint. I was reading this book about this neurotic hyper-articulate pervert who was complaining about his claustrophobic childhood in this hilarious rant. I looked up at these chimps stuck in the zoo in the winter in Chicago in this enclosure and they couldnít leave. An idea was born, so that was how I started writing this book.

When I first started writing it, it was almost something that I was writing for my own personal amusement. Then I started taking it much more seriously. I started researching chimps and ape language much more, as I was writing, and uncovered this fascinating wellspring of stories, about primatology but specifically the history of ape language studies. †

That led to the realization that I came across in the middle of my research, that Duane Rumbaugh and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and the experiment with Kanzi and other bonobos had moved from the language lab in Georgia to Des Moines at the Great Ape Trust, just a couple years before I got there. Not only that, but while I was writing the book, the Decade of the Mind Conference was being held at the Great Ape Trust that year. I just invited myself along to the conference; I sat in on all these amazing lectures. Later I went to the Great Ape Trust, and met William Fields, the director of the bonobo language research program there. William Fields was very helpful and receptive to my project.

Did you get to hang out with Kanzi or any of the other bonobos at the Trust? †

I donít know if ďhang outĒ is the really quite the right phrase. They didnít let me get past the glass, but there was this one particular ape that I interacted with a lot named Nyota, who was a young bonobo, about ten years old at the time. He had such a gregarious personality, he really liked to interact with visitors and was an attention hog. The other bonobos didnít really care about interacting with people but Nyota had a show-off personality.

Every time that I came there he was right up against the glass interacting with me and communicating with the researchers there with the pad of lexigrams [symbols manipulated by the apes]. I knew that this ape, every time I would come back there, Nyota would recognize me and it was really an amazing feeling -- I just felt that I had a particular rapport with this one ape.

Yes, I get that -- itís wonderful when you look in their eyes and you know you are seen. That in a way that brings me back to Bruno. He insists in the book that apes who donít have language still do think, in a kind of a dream-like way. Bruno is saying that language is the ultimate clarifying force. Is it safe to assume that language plays that role for you?

It kind of does. The difficulty of writing this book, one of the main experiments of it, is that I wanted to write a book that was basically about the process of learning language. The problem with that is that for the first half of the book, before Bruno learns language and he has to narrate his pre-linguistic mind using language, itís kind of a weird pretzel of logic. What I researched a lot for this book was not just primatology but also stories about feral children and about people that learned language late in life, like the wild child of Avignon and Kaspar Hauser [and other cases].

Thereís a lot of biographical stuff in Bruno. I tell people that heís basically 80% me. Lots has been written about the function of language in consciousness and what it does for thought; a lot of what I was thinking about is the way language changes the way a consciousness would think.

Thereís a metaphor in Bruno that Iím particularly proud of, where he says, itís not like I didnít have a consciousness before I had language, itís just that my thoughts would trickle through my head in a liquid state. Trying to think without language is like trying to drink water out of cupped hands. And I obviously cannot remember what the world was like to me before I had language, but I think that it does profoundly affect the way that human beings think.

In order to think, you have to be able to abstract, to remove yourself from reality and remove yourself from the particularity of things to some degree in order to really get somewhere with your thoughts. Thatís something language does. Philosophers of language can talk far more articulately about this that I can, but thatís kind of the way I think about this -- that language has a way of removing our minds from the immediate particularity of the objectness and concreteness of our physical †experience with the world. The movement from the immediacy and particularity and concreteness of pre-linguistic thought to the abstraction of linguistic thought is a movement that I really want to capture with this book.

Do you know that Japanese primatologist at the University of Kyoto...

Tetsuro Matsuzawa?

Thatís it. I met him at the Decade of the Mind conference and saw these amazing videos that he did with the chimpanzee Ai. I am sure youíve seen the experiment with the screen with the numbers on it? First they get the chimp to understand that 2 comes after 1, and 3 after 2 and so on, and then they put numbers on the screen in random order. The chimp presses the 1 first, then the 2 and so on, until all the numbers are gone.

Then they change the experiment such that the chimpanzee only gets to see the numbers for a flash, for a fraction of a moment, and these glowing boxes replace the numbers. The chimpanzee got to see the numbers for a smaller and smaller period of time, until it was astoundingly brief. It was really amazing how short they could make it, and the chimp still remembered the pattern of numbers. Not only that, but the chimp was able to keep the pattern in his head for an amazingly long period of time [even through distractions of a good 10 seconds].

Matsuzawa did the same experiment with human test subjects and found that humans are terrible at this experiment -- they are really bad at touching the numbers in the right order even when they can see the numbers on the screen, to say nothing of the talent of touching the numbers right after they have been blocked out after having seen them for just a fraction of a second.

Matsuzawa theorized that these skills for immediate pattern recognition in a snapshot of a photographic memory of something very physical and concrete is a skill not unlike the sorts of things that autistic savants could do, the classic Rain Man type of stuff. That sort of thinking is the kind that may be lost when linguistic thinking enters into our consciousness. †

The book is seeded with wonderful little surprises as the reader goes along. At one point you have Bruno working his way through a friendís library. He says ďTo pass the time I settled on a whimsical bit of frivolous juvenilia about a girl who for some reason is living in an attic with her family, in the pages of which I busied my eyesÖĒ

Yes, thatís a dark joke.

Well, the reader is jolted, at least I was, upon recognizing what book you mean -- and I found it to be a deft way of situating Bruno outside of human culture in that instance. ††

The thing about Bruno is that with any first person narrative, or most, in the way that narrative worksÖ if you have a third-person novel thereís really one window -- the membrane of the medium that stands between the reader and a story. When you have a novel thatís narrated in the first person by a character, one of the interesting things is that there are two windows that stand between the reader and the story.

The first window is simply the words on the page, and thatís me. Then behind that is the window of Bruno. There are two fourth walls before you can enter the story. In a lot of interesting first-person narratives, for instance in one of my favorite books of all time, Gunter Grassís The Tin Drum or certainly in Nabokovís Lolita, the narrator is right underneath the text, which leaves a liminal psychological space, in between the text and the voice of the narrator, and thatís where the author can play around. Thatís the veil of irony thatís right between the narrator and the reader that allows you to float between the surface of the text and the surface of the voice of the character, and make those kinds of jokes as with The Diary of Anne Frank.

Obviously Bruno is reading The Diary of Anne Frank but in his consciousness he doesnít know that. There are still certain gaping holes in his knowledge, he doesnít even know what they are, but we know what they are. In those places you can hear my voice. but not Brunoís.

That was really cool, that was a great answer. I have to ask something about those interspecies love scenes, or to be less coy, the flagrant joyful sex between Bruno and Lydia. To be honest, I sometimes felt uneasy reading them, as much as I enjoyed them. I wondered if that was part of what you wanted from the reader.

Certainly in some sense I didnít want it to be wholly comfortable. On the other hand, I knew right from the beginning that I wanted that to be happen. Of course all the reviewers have mentioned that stuff, I guess for this book you canít not.

Honestly, in the process of my writing, Bruno felt real to me. One of the things I wanted to do was to take this absurd surreal premise and see if I could take it absolutely seriously; I wanted to make Bruno as bold and round a character as I could, to give him all the good and bad elements of a fully developed human consciousness, anger and love and emotions and thoughts and philosophizing.

A lot of it comes from me, a lot of it is his own. He also has sexual desire. He feels love and lust and it was entirely natural to me that that would happen.

It was emergent from Bruno, is what I hear you saying. Thatís probably why although I was uneasy at times, it seemed to work. Okay, this is probably the obligatory last question but Iíd like to know: You wrote the book when you were in Iowa, and youíre now in New York. Youíre teaching and writing now; can you talk a little bit about whatís next?

I have this book of short stories that is just on deck and ready to go. Iím just waiting to see what happens with that; I added one more long short story to it fairly recently. Aside from that Iím working on another couple of projects. Iíve been working on another novel for about the last year and a half. Itís still in such an inchoate state that I almost donít want to jinx myself by talking about it too much.

This one is a much more realistic novel. Itís about a poet and a pot dealer, itís my stoner comedy. Itís like Cheech and Chong and John Berryman.

Barbara J. Kingís most recent book is Being With Animals. †