Book Simple: The Great Ape Book
The start of the new fall television season is the perfect time to read Ape House, Sara Gruen’s recent novel following a group of Bonobo apes kidnapped by a porn magnate and plopped into a “Big Brother”-style television program. The apes are certainly more interesting than the cast of Jersey Shore.
We meet our stars in the Great Ape Language Lab, watched over by human scientist Isabel Duncan. The apes form a tribe both content and generally amused by their awkward human companions. “They know they’re bonobos and they know we’re human,” explains Isabel to John Thigpen, a visiting reporter, “but it doesn’t imply mastery, or superiority, or anything of the sort. We are, all of us, collaborators. We are, in fact, family.”
The playful, happy simian family John meets contrasts strongly with his own combative relationship with his mother Patricia and mother-in-law Fran, and his increasing frustration with his depressed wife Amanda. After her failed career as a novelist, Amanda takes to her bed, allowing the housework to pile up like stacks of unpaid bills, despite John’s rather futile efforts and her in-laws’ displeasure. “Sunday after Sunday John watched as Patricia shot smouldering blame rays in Amanda’s direction. John knew he should do something to shield his broken wife, but his family dynamic was not such that he could address his mother’s assumption about … the slide toward squalor.”
When Amanda’s own evil mother arrives unexpectedly to John and Amanda’s broken home, with her “Schadenfreudic glee [disguised ] as helpfulness,” there is no way for their marriage to survive the misery inherent in remaining. The couple flees, John to Kansas and his story about the apes and Amanda to Los Angeles and a job writing for a sitcom.
In the interim, the Language Lab has attracted the ire of animal rights protestors who cannot grasp that “the entire premise of the project was that the apes were communicating because they wanted to.” A firebomb attributed to eco-terrorists rips apart the building, Isabel and the sponsoring university’s willingness to support the project. The bonobos disappear, “sold, like toasters or snowblowers, like so many items at a garage sale.” Isabel is left alone, disfigured and bereft.
If the book has an overarching lesson, it is that humans must make their own tribes: into Isabel’s life troupes a motley crew of activists, hackers and a corporate mole, all of whom want to help her solve the mystery. Similarly, John gathers his own clan, complete with a tabloid publisher, some Russian strippers and a meth lab’s pit bull. The groups join forces after a mystery advertising campaign displays the bonobos on billboards, television ads and Internet pop-ups, all directing to a website called apehouse.tv.
The bonobos become the stars of a reality television show dreamed up by pornographer Ken Faulks, who mysteriously obtained the Language Lab’s software as well as its former inhabitants. Enclosed in “an ape-proof house with a courtyard in a remote area of New Mexico best known for its third-rate casinos and ‘gentlemen’s clubs,’” the apes’ rampant sexuality makes them an instant sensation, watched with both prurient interest and puritanical condemnation.
The novel makes it clear that during evolution humans may have lost more than we gained. While the fictional ape family is peaceful and nearly free of conflict, the novel’s humans are fascinatingly complicated in their struggles and ambitions. Gruen researched real conversations between humans and great apes and visited the Great Ape Trust in order to construct the bonobo dialogue, and her book reads almost like a mystery thriller — for certain, it’s better than anything on television this season!