Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ape House

The great success of Water for Elephants made it almost a certainty that Sara Gruen’s follow-up novel would suffer by comparison. That one set the bar so high that it would have been a real surprise if Gruen had been able to reach those heights with successive novels. What we know now is that, though she might very well achieve that kind of magic again one day, Ape House is not the one that will do it for her.


Ape House begins rather promisingly in the Great Ape Language Lab where Isabel Duncan and her university assistants are studying the communicative adaptability of a small family of bonobo apes. By using basic ASL (the American Sign Language system), the apes are able to converse with their keepers, even to the point of expressing their desires, emotions, and feelings about their life behind bars. The apes, in effect, have learned to understand, and speak, simple English. Isabel Duncan has, at the same time, grown so close to them that she considers the apes to be family.

All too soon, however, Gruen takes Ape House in the wrong direction. Rather than concentrating on the unique relationship between the apes and their humans, she spends the bulk of the book exploring the romantic relationships of her human characters, in effect stealing any potential magic Ape House had, and transforming it into a mediocre romance novel.

After the lab is blown up by a grotesque group of animal activists, and Isabel is almost killed in the explosion, reporter John Thigpen feels compelled to follow the tragedy to its end despite having to take a job with a trashy Los Angeles tabloid in order to be able to do so. Thigpen had visited the apes only hours before the blast and was changed by the experience, coming away from the lab with the feeling that the apes were every bit as “human” as the newspaper crew flying home with him.

While Isabelle is still recovering from her injuries, the university sponsoring the language lab decides to sell the apes to a pornographic film producer who wants to give the animals their very own reality television show. The bonobos are given their own house, complete with a computer to order whatever they desire (including individual food selections), exercise equipment, comfortable furniture and a big screen television. There are so many cameras in the house that the animals never have a moment of privacy – everything they do is shown on live television, 24 hours a day.

Despite the fact that none of Ape House’s human characters are as interesting (and certainly not as likable) as the apes, the novel spends the bulk of its time on human relationships. Gruen uses these characters, and their efforts either to exploit or to save the apes, to expose the absurdities of modern culture – particularly in regard to reality TV, Hollywood phonies, shrinking newspaper circulation, and celebrity worship. She neglects, however, what would have perhaps saved the book: the interrelationship between the apes and the humans with whom they come into contact. The chance to explore such a relationship is probably what drew most readers to Ape House in the first place, and its near absence leaves the book reading more as farce than legitimate social commentary.

Rated at 2.5

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