Monday, June 20, 2011

Gone Bananas: Sara Gruen’s Ape House

Ape House is not actually Sara Gruen’s second novel. But it seems like it. Gruen clearly recognizes the pressure of following up a successful novel. One of the characters in Ape House, Amanda, is trying to do just that. This self-reflexivity is just one example of Gruen’s heavy-handed attempt at being clever in a novel that is still a thoroughly enjoyable read. 

Her first two books, Riding Lessons (2004) and Flying Changes (2005), had relatively low profiles; while Water for Elephants (2006) was such a popular success that it was recently made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Like all of Gruen’s books, Ape House continues to educate us about animals’ capacity for emotion. While Water for Elephants is a historical novel, Ape House has a decidedly modern plot with blatant references to mainstream pornography, gaudy reality television, and email hacking. Ape House is not nearly as elegantly written as Water for Elephants, but what it lacks in elegance it makes up for in exhilaration.

Here is a skeleton of the plot, because it’s so outlandish that nothing will make sense unless you know the premise. A primate language laboratory containing six bonobos is bombed, sending the lead scientist (Isabel Duncan) into the trauma ward and the bonobos into the hands of a porn producer, who locks them in a house with omnipresent cameras and broadcasts them on cable television. The protagonist (John Thigpen) is a reporter covering the story whilst his own world explodes around him.

Author Sara Gruen
The full plot is much fleshier, reminiscent of Victorian melodrama in its over-the-top elements and ridiculous exposĂ© of the ridiculous in our culture. In some senses, kudos to Gruen for squeezing in an ape lab explosion, a meth lab explosion, a falsely-accused affair with a premenopausal stripper, and DNA testing to reveal that a green-haired teenage environmentalist is actually not your son. It is incredulous that these elements combine to make a realistic and compelling novel. Yet, when we look around our world at hockey-induced rioting, the concurrence of postal and airline strikes, and the fact that “lindsay lohan” gets more Google results than “the bible,” it’s obvious that Gruen’s too-much plot reflects our too-much world.

If we were back in Grade 10 English class and had to choose a one-word theme for this book, it would be Family the universal need for family, the impact family has on shaping our lives, and the different forms that family can take. In Isabel’s first interview with John, she shamefacedly admits that the desire to understand her family inspired her to major in behavioral psychology. When we learn that Isabel’s family consists of a neglectful prostitute mother who sent the children to the basement when she had visitors, it’s no wonder that Isabel now considers the bonobos her real family. When’s John’s wife, Amanda, gets the maternal urge, he suggests she pacify it with a pet. Not only does he think he already has a teenage child from a long-ago affair, but he assumes the presence of his over-bearing mother-in-law would be heightened with the birth of a grandchild. Unlike the more obvious components of Ape House, deciphering Gruen’s message on family requires work on the part of the reader, but the work is most welcome and rewarding.

Amidst the preposterous human characters of Ape House (shouldn’t there be a statutory limit to the number of porn kings, drug gangsters, or Eastern European strippers in one novel?); the bonobos continually exude grace, empathy, and coolness under pressure. Much is made of the bonobos’ aptitude for human language (they understand spoken English and can communicate back in ASL, American Sign Language), but their capacity for super-human love is even more astounding. Their approach to sexuality is open and healthy. Bonobos are explicitly sexual creatures and use genital rubs as we would a handshake. The apes can handle this contact maturely; apparently humans cannot. Excited at the primates’ innate sexuality, the producers of the television show send the bonobos sex toys in hopes that some mad, viewer-pleasing orgy will ensue. No such luck. The bonobos use the vibrator as a spin top and immediately cover the naked doll with a blanket. You can only assume they were thinking how odd and immature humanity must be. I can’t say I blame them.

We can learn a lot from the bonobos. This is clear from the way their kind actions are juxtaposed next to the moral deformities of some humans. They know how to create and protect a family; they know how to make love, not war; they are in tune with themselves and their environment in a way that the garish elements of our culture make it difficult to be. Ape House illustrates that while Homo sapiens appear to have gone bananas, bonobos are calmly eating theirs.

– Mari-Beth Slade is a food and wine lover, wayward librarian and would-be philosopher. She works as a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax, but spends most days doing yoga poses at her desk or brainstorming discussion topics for her book club.

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