Talk to Me by T. C. Boyle – 2021
Aimee Villard is a misfit, a loner, an undergrad at a California university, when she sees an associate professor from the university on a TV gameshow, accompanied by Sam, a chimpanzee. When Aimee sees Sam, an “adorable, big-eared doll come to life”, she is captivated. The academic is Guy Schermerhorn, ambitious, arrogant, lascivious. Guy is the “golden boy” of Iowan university professor, Dr Donald Moncrief, who is the alpha male in the field of primate language studies – “the hottest thing going”.
Talk to me tells the inevitably tragic story of Sam from differing points of view. ‘Inevitably’ as most readers will know that the chimpanzees used in the cross-fostering language studies of the 1970s, did not end up part of their loving families for the rest of their lives. And many will know that the experiments themselves were far from beneficial for the chimps. The reader’s first encounter with Sam is traumatic – many of his chapters are set in Moncrief’s chimp breeding facility in Iowa, others are in more pleasant surroundings, but are from the point of view of a confused and disoriented psyche.
Many, if not all, of the chimp incidents are based on real incidents. Sam desperately signing KEY LOCK OUT echoes chimp Bruno at the LEMSIP facility in Tuxedo, New York. Sam signing BLACK BUGS is based on Washoe’s opinion of her fellow chimps, and Guy imagining Alice signing to her infant once born, echoes Washoe teaching signs to her adopted son Loulis. Azalel’s suicide seems to be based on that of a monkey in a Chester Zoo in 1932. Scenes in the breeding facility are a montage of horrors recorded of the experiences of chimps in breeding facilities or being held for biomedical research.
Guy is “overworked and overstressed” when he hires Aimee to mind Sam, a job which is soon one of dogsbody, live-in maid, and finally as someone “malleable, easy pickings, a girl he could ride and ride”. Guy is a piece of work – Aimee replaces Guy’s wife Melanie, who walked out as she was doing all the work with Sam while Guy was getting all the credit. And after his appearance on the gameshow, Guy is intent on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, an appearance that would challenge Moncrief’s position as alpha male of chimp language research. Sam is a pathway to academic stardom for Guy, for Aimee Sam is a person.
And the “Id on wheels” who has just bitten a grad student on the face when Aimee first meets him, is smitten with her too: “He’s in love with you, haven’t you noticed?” Sam is kept on a ranch owned by the university. The house has been turned into a fortress and has three dead bolts on the front door. Sam is fed an appalling diet of pizza and burgers, he drinks wine and G&Ts, and smokes cigarettes and pot. Although knowing that research chimps at around 4-5 years were usually retired to breeding facilities or biomedical research labs, even Guy hopes Sam will be with them forever – or at least until Guy becomes famous.
Guy and Moncrief are arrogant misogynists, and there are heavily drawn parallels between the manipulation of women in the story, and the treatment of the chimpanzees. Moncrief once locked a female student in with a chimpanzee for three hours to teach her a lesson. He beats the alpha male in his facility into submission. After the first time he has sex with Aimee, Guy just speaks about himself, how good he had been when they filmed an item about him and Sam at the ranch. And he is demanding in how he wants Aimee to dress, wear make-up, or speak to men he wants things from.
While Guy claims he is passionate about the cross-fostering research, Moncrief isn’t that interested in the field – he’s more into “masturbation studies”, but both men are interested in the research money that comes with Sam. And Moncrief makes money off any research using chimps, as he breeds them – Sam is worth $10,000, and he belongs to Moncrief. When Moncrief visits the ranch, Sam’s reaction confirms for the reader that he a threat, that and his bringing the news that simian language experiments were coming off the boil; one of the other students he is mentoring having declared they were a fraud. The reader, Guy, and Aimee all then know that research at the ranch will be winding down.
As the story progresses, the reader is with Sam in the Moncrief’s appallingly unsanitary breeding facility, and in the frozen surroundings when he escapes. We read of his not knowing why he has been abandoned, why this punishment has no end, and then of his relief when Aimee arrives at the facility. We read of the moment Sam realises he is a chimp, astonished, as he has never seen another chimp since he was two weeks old, when Moncrief darted his mother and took him away to give to Melanie and Guy. The novel follows Aimee and Sam after they break out of the Iowa facility, finally to Arizona where the pair settle in a trailer park.
Aimee and Sam live very cautiously, and Sam understands he has to suppress his urges and be on his best behaviour, to be CUTE. Aimee even re-connects with her Catholic faith, getting Sam baptised by a priest. Father Curran seems interested in confirming his own faith by finding out what Sam knows of God. Boyle uses this episode to throw in the stone-placing and rain-dancing rituals of wild chimpanzees. From Sam’s point of view “the man in the black robe had once been the occasion for the production of chocolate cake, and that seemed enough of a reason in itself to pay attention to him”.
Talk to me is crammed with Boyle’s research on chimps, but his use of stereotypes of humans to tell his story, for me, undermines the force of the novel. I even found Sam unconvincing at times. Aimee is the closest thing to a nuanced character, and she is pretty superficial. Guy has no depth. And Moncrief is a straight out vaudeville villain – he even has an eye patch – he suggests to gullible students it is the result of an aggressive chimpanzee, which proves to be prophetic.
But the main thing that concerns me about the book, is the suggestion that the mistake humans made when teaching chimps sign language was in pushing them into “the next phase of their evolution” by igniting a “Promethean spark”. That such an unnatural developmental alteration had created monsters: “He wasn’t a person and he wasn’t an animal but something in between, something deformed and unnatural” – this idea is highlighted by Sam becoming distraught when watching a movie of Frankenstein as things wind up to the denouement.
This moral ambiguity sits oddly with the genuinely moving parts of the book: Sam remembering climbing the oak tree at the ranch to turn his face to the sky: “MY TREE.” His first experience of being groomed by another chimp. His mother wearing a padlocked collar she’s worn since she was captured in Gambia, giving birth five time, each time to be darted and have her baby stolen before her eyes. The joy of Sam playing chase with Aimee, and then Guy and Aimee on the mesa in Arizona. The denouement: I AM SAM I AM SAM. And the imagining of what did happen – puzzled chimps in biomedical research facilities, spending their last days signing to keepers who has no idea, or who didn’t care, that they were trying to communicate.
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel – 2016
The High Mountains of Portugal contains three intricately connected stories, about grief, faith and how we are not fallen angels but risen apes.
The first story, set in the early 1900s, concerns Tomás, who walks backwards in objection to God taking his lover, his son and his father all in one week. He has taken time off his job in a museum to track down a treasure he has read about in a 17th century journal, the treasure having been crafted by a disillusioned priest on a slave island off the coast of Africa. The priest made the carving after encountering a tragic group of slaves who had been taken from the Congo; one female glances at him from their horrid cell and: “That short gaze made me see a wretchedness that until then had never echoed in my heart.” Tomás borrows a car from his uncle and heads for the suspected location of the treasure – the High Mountains of Portugal, a remote area where the Iberian rhinoceros is thought to still roam. After many adventures, mishaps and tragedies Tomás discovers the treasure – a crucifix made in the image of one of the poor creatures from the Congo.
The second story takes place in 1938 in the offices of pathologist, Eusebio Lozora. Lozora is working late at night when he has two visitors. The first is his wife who has solved the mystery of the miracles of Christ in the manner of Agatha Christie, and the second a woman who carries the body of her husband in a suitcase, and who asks Lozora for an autopsy to discover how the man lived. This surreal tale of love and grief has links to the first story and entails the woman being sown inside her husband’s body along with a chimpanzee and a bear cub – the latter the nickname of their much-loved deceased son. The son died in mysterious circumstances and at his funeral the woman’s husband walked in reverse. The artifacts of the man’s life that Lozora finds in his body replace his body in the suitcase.
The third story starts in modern day Canada where Peter Tovy, a Senator grieving for his wife, is sent on a mission to Oklahoma. He visits a university chimpanzee sanctuary and encounters Odo. Odo is a chimpanzee who has been passed from NASA to research facility to research facility since being brought to the States from Africa as an infant. Odo looks at Peter and on a whim Peter offers a large sum of money to purchase the chimp. After arrangements have been made, Peter takes Odo to his family’s home town of Tuizelo, in the High Mountains of Portugal.
In Tuizelo there is a suitcase in the basement of the house Peter rents, there is an unusual crucifix in the church, and there is a local story of a child who dies in mysterious circumstances. The descriptions of Peter getting to know Odo are magical, and are not of the chimpanzee learning how to ‘raise himself up’ to man, but how man can learn so much about living from a chimpanzee: “Peter has learned the difficult animal skill of doing nothing”, he has “been touched by the grace of the ape, and the there’s no going back to being a plain human being”.
The high mountains of Portugal has elements of magic realism, great chimpanzee descriptions, moving commentaries on religion and the nature of faith, and is all together a wonderful read.
Endangered by Eliot Schrefer – 2012
Endangered is a Young Adult novel: Sophie, 14, splits her time between the United States, where she lives with her father, and the Democratic Republic of Congo where she visits her Mother in the holidays. Her mother runs a Bonobo sanctuary out of Kinshasa. Sophie is pretty savvy about the dangers and corruption in the Congo, but that doesn’t stop her paying a trafficker for an infant Bonobo on the way from the airport to her mother’s sanctuary, a Bonobo she names Otto.
Her mother is very angry that Sophie has paid a trafficker – but that is only the beginning of Sophie’s troubles. When her mother leaves to take some of the sanctuary Bonobos to release them, and the President is assassinated, Sophie is on the list for UN evacuation. But Sophie can’t leave Otto, so she stays with him: initially hiding out behind the electric fence of the sanctuary with the other Bonobos, and eventually trying to make it overland to meet up with her mother at the release site near a small village outside of Mbandaka.
Sophie must learn to get by like a Bonobo, and so Endangered also tells the story about Bonobos, their behaviours, their community structure and their plight. The reader also reads of the (imagined but imaginable) nightmare of political instability in the Congo following a Presidential assassination. Schrefer does not shy away from the violence, dangers or tragedy of the Congo and its history, not the horrific details of the dangers Bonobos face in the Congo, their only home country.
Endangered is movingly written, is not without humour, and you really empathise with Sophie and Otto. Sophie might start out thinking she knows all about the dangers of the Congo, but by the end of the novel she has lived through many of them first hand. The novel also raises tricky moral questions: Do you refuse to pay a trafficker and ignore one life that is in front of you, knowing that paying will be an incentive for the trafficker to take more lives? Or do you do anything to save that one life?
Endangered is engrossing, informative, moving and very sad.
Lulu by Annamarie Jagose – 1998
What a gem of a book about love, lies and whether we can ever really know another being. Kate is a linguist, living with Mitch, a psychologist. They are very different people, with different pasts and they quite enjoy each other’s differences. When Kate decides to adopt an infant chimpanzee for her linguistic research, Mitch is a co-submitter for funding, only because broader-based research is more likely to result in a successful bid. Enter, Lulu, alphabetically between Kate and Mitch, and seen by them both from quite different perspectives. The book is narrated turn and turn about by Mitch and Kate, Lulu being the silent but eloquent third narrator. Through Kate and Mitch’s descriptions of Lulu’s progress, their own indiscretions and insecurities, and their very different appreciation of Lulu, we become less and less sure of what is transpiring in those moments when we are not present. There is no reflection of the raging academic disagreements about simian signing, or even of the broader debate whether we could even understand the language of another species. There is mention of protest about Kate and Mitch’s acquisition of Lulu, and Kate’s response to this is eloquent about her character. But Lulu is not a book about the ethics and dangers of keeping chimps in captivity and isolated from others of their kind; Lulu in this book acts as a fuzzy conduit for contemplating human behaviour and communication – in this case highlighting that what elevates human – and chimp – communication is a facility to lie, deceive and withhold information. Lulu is definitely a key player in the story, but it is a sad and beautiful book about humans and their isolation from each other, and their attraction to the unknown, and it has a very poignant ending.
In June and July of 2017 I volunteered at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. It was an amazing experience getting to interact with chimpanzees – such transparently intelligent and communicating creatures, that are so like ‘us’ yet so ‘other’. There has been some great fiction playing with this ‘uncanny valley’; chimps being seen as cute and loveable until they become too uncomfortably like us, asserting themselves in some way, becoming a source of fear, or even loathing. And there is the horrific history of medical and psychological experimentation on chimps, ironically because they are seen as being so close to us genetically. Four books in particular have captured the tragedy of human relationships with chimpanzees, two written in 2011 and two in 2013.
The first is an extraordinary debut novel from 2011, The evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. Bruno is an exceptional chimpanzee who was noted to be so by scientists when he followed an unnecessary ritual in a human child/chimpanzee intelligence test. The story is narrated by Bruno from a secure facility, Bruno having achieved a highly sophisticated level of human speech by the time he is contained due to his having committed murder. We follow Bruno’s emergence as a totally self-aware individual, following the evolution of speech and the emergence of human emotions such as shame and regret. And inter-species love, a disturbing development that makes the point: “Becoming human is a process of equal parts enlightenment and imprinting your brain with taboos”. Bruno is all too aware that his desire for humanity entails a loss of something precious, and what is central to this trade is speech: “In a way language is an inner death of that sense of perpetual amazement at the ever-renewed world”. The evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a sobering read, sad at times, but also a hugely enjoyable – if you like humanity being put in its place “… for all the sweetness and light of our great cities and great machines and great art, we are nothing terribly more magnificent than apes with clothes on our bodies, words in our mouths, and heads inflated with willful delusions”. And the willful delusion? That we are a little less than angels – to which Bruno responds: “Not little less than angels! Little more than apes! No! Nothing more than apes!”
“… we’re apes and we’re doomed not to know it” is also the thought going through a character’s mind in the next novel A beautiful truth by Colin McAdam, published 2013. Dave is a primatologist who has worked with and overseen a group of chimps in The Girdish institute in Florida for many years. The Institute was established to study chimp behaviour, but as years have gone by interests and funding sources have changed, and have included a period of biomedical research. Most of the story of the institute is told from the point of view of the chimps, both in the behavioural group, and also in the biomedical labs. It is heart rending reading. But what gives this book such tremendous impact is the story of a particular chimp, Looee. Far from the Girdish Institute, up in Vermont, Walt Ribke decides to buy a chimpanzee as a child substitute for his wife Judy. McAdam’s description of Looee’s upbringing is extraordinary – perfectly capturing the wonder of Walt and Judy with this being who is not a pet and not a child – but who is a communicating individual. But you read Looee’s story with a sense of impending tragedy – not only because all stories of people ‘adopting’ wild animals end in tragedy, but also because the inner turmoil of Looee as he matures is captured so well. Interspersed with Looee’s story is that of the behavoural group at Girdish – their power struggles, their infatuations, their tapping out of words to communicate with keepers – at least for the period that language experiments are in favour. As Looee grows, “It was Looee’s first summer that he could take to the next summer – his first really season of memory”, you long for the two stories not to collide. But of course they do – the combination of a tragedy and a misleading flyer with happy chimps in a rural setting on the cover seals the deal. And Looee’s and his fellows’ experiences during their years at Girdish are devastating reading. The biomedical research wing is a circle of hell: “At best it was like working in a hospital where the patients never got better. It was a place that offered no praise.” McAdam allows us a possible glimpse of the unknowable – the outlook of another species – the puzzlement, the aching regret. We read of Looee’s confusion and longing, and another chimp Mr. Ghoul – using his remaining scrap of icon card: ”He eats nine soporific bananas and taps banana banana banana on the cardboard beside him while he eases into sleep”. The novel takes you into areas hard to bear, especially knowing it is all based on actual experiences.
Unsaid by Neil Abramson (2011) is another debut novel, and is written from the point of view of a recently deceased veterinarian, Helena, who fears meeting all the animals she has ‘put down’ when she moves on. So, she hangs around her country property, worrying about her lawyer husband, David, as he struggles to care for her animals. It is a tale of grief and how you can carry on when a loved one dies, but it also turns into the legal debate on non-human personhood. For David find out that Helena has been helping an old colleague, Jaycee, work with a 4-year-old chimp named Cindy. David find this out when the government shuts down Jaycee’s study and she hires him to defend her when she gets caught breaking into her lab to save Cindy from being sent to a dire fate. Much comes out during the trial about the work that Helena and Jaycee undertook when they worked as students at Cornell, where they took part in a primate immunology study involving a bonobo. And the question of Cindy’s rights is argued, hinging on the level of her communication skills and leading to a highly emotional denouement.
The last novel is We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013). This is a superb book that I can’t describe to you in any detail without ruining its revelatory storytelling. The story is told by Rosemary Cooke, and structured according to how the young chatterbox Rosemary was instructed as a child in order to cut down on her chatter; start in the middle. When quite young, Rosemary had become an ‘only child’ having lost her older brother and a twin sister. She still feels guilt for both these loses and the themes of the novel are the reliability of memory, how we try to discover who we are and where we belong, and the human tragedy of seeing the ‘other’ starting from points of difference rather than from the points all creatures have in common. The story is set in the 1970s, the late 1990s and the ‘present’ – and plays amid these differing socio-political times. It is a tragic book, and doesn’t hold out much hope despite being full of warmth. As with many books I have read that achingly point out that humans don’t have that much to be proud of – the fact of the book existing at all is one tiny flag to hold up in defiance.
Four amazing reads that make you ponder the behaviour of humans towards their nearest relatives.