Ape House by Sara Gruen

Happy 4th of July, everyone!

This weekend has been eventful. For those who don’t know, I’m currently learning to drive. As part of the class, students have to spend time driving with the instructor so we can find out what it’s really all about. I’ve only done this three times. The first time, everything went fine. We stayed right in Winthrop and it was basically all about accelerate, decelerate, turn, signal, etc. The second day we decided to go into Augusta (well, he decided we would go into Augusta) and get on the turnpike. Just as we were about to change lanes, I checked my blind spot and there was a car right there and I panicked because I didn’t think I could make it and my instructor got angry and it was horrible, but we made it. So the second day I almost got hit by another car.

Yesterday we went into Augusta and we did a bunch of parallel parking and a couple of rotaries. Then we were on another rotary, in the outside lane, and the guy on the inside lane- a giant truck– turns and smashes right into my door. It was actually not a big deal- the door was wrecked, but no one was hurt and both cars were still drivable- but after Saturday, and then yesterday, I felt horrible (even though it wasn’t my fault, according to my teacher, and the other guy willingly took responsibility) and my thoughts were basically a nonstop litany of, “I will never drive again, this is clearly not for me, I will live out my life in a city where I can get around on foot and public transportation.” And also there were tears.

So that was my weekend. How was yours?

Oh, and then when I got home I read for about five hours solid until I finished this book.

Ape House is about a scientist, Isabel, who studies (works with, rather) bonobos who have learned American Sign Language. They live in a “lab” which is really a facility that’s been perfectly attuned to the health of the bonobos. The apes are very sentient, and very happy.

John Thigpen is a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer who’s been assigned to report on their story- along with a second reporter named Cat Douglas, who is underhanded and sly. When they visit the Great Ape Language Lab, John is allowed in to see the apes while Cat is turned away at the door, because she has a cold. She gets to spend her day with linguists, instead. John’s experience with the apes is almost magical. There’s a passage in the book, when John is interviewing Isabel, and they mention how he actually managed to offend one of the bonobos.

[Isabel] “He got over it.”
[John] “No, he didn’t. But do you understand how strange that whole thing would seem to your average, everyday person? The concept that you can insult an animal in a social situation and have to make it up to him? And possibly fail? That you can have a two-way conversation with apes, in a human language no less, and they’re doing it simply because they want to?”
[Isabel] “By Jove, I think he’s got it!”

The day after the interview, when John and Cat are safely home in Philly, a group of extremists blow up the lab. They claim they “liberated” the apes, but what they really did was send the bonobos into a tree, in the cold, so that they could be bought by anyone while Isabel was in the ICU. As the general public didn’t understand how intelligent were the creatures they were dealing with, they treated the situation much less delicately than they should have. Now Isabel needs to find out where the bonobos went, and get them back.

Meanwhile, Cat’s stolen the story from John. After a string of indignities, he and his wife move to LA to follow a job lead for her, and John finds another paper willing to give him the ape story (no, it’s not all really that simple, but details are spoilers). The plot advances.

This novel was written by Sara Gruen, of Water for Elephants fame. If you go reread that review, you’ll see that I was quite impressed by Water for Elephants. I believe that Sara Gruen is a master of words, and even though others may complain because this one isn’t as good as the other, it’s still pretty freaking magnificent, okay? When you take an incredibly talented writer and compare all of her works to her most successful work, you’re bound to talk yourself out of a few gems.

Personally, I thought this was fantastic. I don’t think it could be any further removed from 1920’s circus life. Sara Gruen can write a spellbinding story of any situation, I am convinced. Now let’s talk about the bonobos.

Bonobos are great apes, very similar in appearance to chimpanzees (the easiest way to tell is that chimps have tan faces, while bonobos have black faces). They share over 98.7% of our DNA. They may not have gotten as much narration time as the major human characters, but these apes were fantastic. They were incredibly capable of complex conversation, using ASL and computer technology called lexigrams. There was one point at which Isabel asked a bonobo named Sam to open a window for her, and Sam refused and told her why. Encounters like this are proof to the outside world that the apes aren’t simply trained, but actually intelligent.

To research the book, Sara Gruen actually go to visit with a group of ASL-competent apes. Many of the things that the apes say in the book are inspired by things that the apes actually signed to her while she was there. She describes the experience in her author’s notes.

Another thing this book lights on is how often apes, and other animals, and abused for human purposes. She describes well-known experiments, such as the one in which infant chimps were taken from their mothers and given a surrogate mother who was made out of either terry-cloth or metal, and then studied them to see what this did to their psyche. Apes and monkeys are infected with human viruses and left to suffer and die so that human scientists can study the effects. It’s wretched what humans will do to their closest cousins, who have proven sentient. So while an ape is locked in a cage, waiting for AIDS to manifest and destroy her, she’s probably actually thinking about how terrible humans are. Apes from these facilities are notoriously aggressive, and we wonder why.

So, this book made me think hard. I also got quite emotional in some places, and really freaking pissed off in others. It was magnificently written and delivered. I really enjoyed it.

Next, I have a very short book from the library. Tomorrow I’ll have to go back and find a few more. Meanwhile, I’ve been assigned 85 pages in this motorists handbook for driver’s ed, because Mother and Teacher still want me to try again. It’s like… well, it is actually reading an instruction manual. It’s awful. Novels are much more interesting.

Published in: on July 4, 2011 at 11:55 am  Comments (4)  
Tags: ,