Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: 'Ape House'

Sara Gruen's first novel since her immensely popular Water For Elephants opens with two quotes that set the tone for the rest of the novel.  The first quote is from Nim Chimpsky, a young chimpanzee in the 1970s, and it is, "Give orange give me eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you."  And the second quote reads, "Gimme gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more."--Briney Spears, 2007. 

I laughed a little when I first saw those two statements.  But as I continued to read the novel I was finding myself thinking that this book must be designed to be a satire.  The Bonobo apes are often portrayed as being intelligent with their ability to use the American Sign Language (ASL), while the adult humans are some of the most immature characters that I have read in recent memory.  From the opening quotes, to the last page, it seems that human beings are not much more evolved than our ape cousins.  Whether or not the novel is supposed to be a satire, it still falls short on having complicated or likable characters.

Two of the primary male characters in the novel are journalist John Thigpen and Dr. Peter Benton.  There is absolutely to ambiguity in either of their personalities. John is one of protagonists while Benton is a secondary character.  Gruen paints John Thigpen (who is sometimes called Pigpen, which is not funny at all) as the sweet, sensitive male whose main goal in life is to make is irritating wife, Amanda, happy.  Peter Benton, on the other hand, is a jerk is every possible way.  He does everything from cheating on his fiance (Dr. Isabel Duncan), to not showing compassion to the apes, to selling both her and the apes out for money.  The two characters come off as some sixteen year old's view of what men are like.  They are either completely good or completely evil.  

The female characters are only slightly better written.  Isabel Duncan is definitely sympathetic as she experiences at least a couple traumas in early parts of the story.  Yet, her personality does not come off as someone who has earned a doctorate of any kind.  He behavior in certain situations is unacceptable for a person of her intelligence.  However, compared to Amanda Thigpen, Isabel is full of wisdom beyond her years.

Amanda Thigpen . . . well what can I say.  I can't identify with a man like John when he is in love with a woman who breaks down every time someone says something off putting to her.  If I were him, I would be hesitant to have child with her as well.

So satire or not satire, that is the question.  I didn't even describe some of the more inexplicable moments in the story that made may laugh when I guess I shouldn't be laughing.   I can confidently say that there is definitely some meta commentary on our current society happening here.  But in order for it to be enjoyable, characters can't be game pieces for the real stars of the books, the apes.  I have yet to read any other work from Sara Gruen, so I don't know if she is a good writer.  But if Water for Elephants is anything like this, count me out.

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