'Ape House': Things that Make You Say 'Ouch'

When journalist John Thigpen is assigned to cover the bonobos of Kansas City’s Great Ape Language lab, he is equally enchanted by the bonobos and their beloved caretaker, scientist Isabel Duncan.

Ape House

Publisher: Random House / Spiegel and Grau
Length: 306 pages
Author: Sara Gruen
Price: $26.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-09

When journalist John Thigpen is assigned to cover the bonobos of Kansas City’s Great Ape Language lab, he is equally enchanted by the bonobos and their beloved caretaker, scientist Isabel Duncan. Bonobos Bonzi, Sam, Jelani, Makena, Lola, and Mbongo are all fluent in American Sign Language, and converse with Isabel, who is more comfortable with the apes than fellow humans.

Just as John is filing his story, disaster strikes. The Great Ape lab is blown up. The apes escape into the trees, only to be tranquilized and shipped off to an undisclosed location. Isabel, severely injured, is devastated. An extremist animal rights group takes responsibility. John, seeing the story of the lifetime—while harboring impure thoughts for Isabel--hurries from his Philadelphia home back to Kansas City.

From here, Sara Gruen’s Ape House descends into an unrealistic story only narrowly escaping the romance genre. The humans are flat stereotypes. Sensitive, romantic John is married to the waifish, emotionally fragile Amanda (What is it about Amandas? All are fragile and waiflike, it seems. Where are the stout, strong, weight-lifting Amandas?).

Amanda is a writer whose first novel, The River Wars, suffers from being too literary. Its publication is met with no fanfare. When her publisher goes out of business, her agent leaves publishing to open a yarn shop. Amanda writes another novel and begins the horrible business of trying to land a new agent. Her diligent efforts are met with over 100 rejections. (This part is, alas, quite realistic.) Amanda takes to bed, abandoning the housekeeping and cooking.

Enter Fran, Amanda’s mother, who literally bursts into the Thigpen household with her passive husband, scrubbing, cooking, doing laundry, and intruding obnoxiously and inappropriately into the couple’s life. Incredibly, these two 36-year-olds don’t throw the woman out. Instead, they endure Fran passively, opting to escape their own home like two suburban children playing runaway.

Isabel, meanwhile, lies in a hospital bed with her jaw wired shut, signing frantically, out of her mind about her beloved animals. Secretly she hopes her alcoholic mother will appear, ready at last to care for her. Mom is a no-show, but Peter, the language lab director and Isabel’s secret fiancé, does his best to comfort her, vaguely promising to recover the animals. The media swarms, for the bonobos, with their gentle temperaments, generous sexuality, linguistic skills, and astonishing closeness to humanity, make excellent copy.

Gruen did a tremendous amount of research before writing Ape House, going so far as to visit the Great Ape Trust, interacting with both the humans and bonobos there, yet she has Isabel master American Sign Language in just one summer. I have a Bachelor’s degree is in ASL. I was in an immersion program—my professors were Deaf, as were many of my classmates. In that environment, it took me two years to become fluent in ASL, whose linguistic structure is closest to Chinese. Acquiring fluent ASL in a summer is akin to learning Mandarin in 12 weeks: impossible.

Gruen also never mentions that apes, for all their intelligence, never master what Chomsky called “deep grammar”: the innate human capacity to acquire complex linguistic skills. Apes cannot comprehend language at this level. They can and do communicate using ASL, but they never achieve the sophisticated level of linguistic interaction that humans do—a point of great pain to the Deaf community, which has endured the marginalization of Sign Language since the first Deaf humans rose their hands to communicate.

Isabel’s speedy recovery from her injuries may not be impossible, but it is improbable. The lab explosion hurled her down a hallway, where she smashed into a wall, only to be hit in the face by a flying door. Her skull is cracked, her jaw wired shut, several teeth are missing. Her long, straight blond hair is shaved so doctors can close a deep wound on her scalp. Yet she seems to bounce back in a matter of weeks, albeit with the help of her 19-year-old lab assistant, Celia. Celia is fuchsia-haired, tattooed, foul-mouthed, and, of course, buddies with some skilled computer hackers, whose skills will come in handy later.

John, meanwhile, is running into trouble on all fronts. Amanda is moving to Los Angeles to try her hand at television writing. His boss at the Philly Inquirer is an unsympathetic woman who sics Pulitzer winning writer Cat Douglas on him. Cat lives down her name: she’s a red-haired conniver whose rapacity for getting the story knows no limits. She grabs John’s article out from under him. Enraged, John quits, only to be hired by the worst rag in Los Angeles, The Weekly Times.

By now the bonobos have made a shocking reappearance on billboards across the land. One Ken Faulks, coincidentally a former journalist and supervisor of John’s, has moved to bigger and better things in the porn industry. Now he’s lit on reality television. His new show, Ape House, features Isabel’s beloved apes, filmed live, 24/7, in a specially built house in Lizard, New Mexico. Faulks’s acquisition of the animals serves as the whodunit element, leading to a cast of bad guys, an aging porn star with a heart of gold, the aforementioned hackers, who of course are geeky college types, an extraneous sideline involving a green-haired vegan teenager, and a happy ending, tied in a bow.

I’m summarizing a great deal, partly not to divulge the plot. Gruen is a bestselling author, meaning she is famous without me. The writing is smooth, the plotting skilled. And the bonobos are indeed enchanting, far exceeding their human counterparts. When Sam takes a ball from Mbongo, Mbongo hangs his head, then signs to Isabel “KISS HUG, KISS HUG.” (Gruen narrates the bonobo’s signing in capitals.) Bonzi, tired of a famous rock musician’s behavior, signs “SIT DOWN! BE QUIET! EAT PEANUTS!” This is something I’ve wanted say to many, many times.

Most importantly, readers of Ape House learn about bonobos and their society. Reading of their terrible treatment at human hands is wrenching; at one point in her search for the animals, Isabel is permitted to visit a research center where medical experiments are carried out. The scene is enough to send the most gluttonous carnivore rushing to PETA headquarters. And the reader can’t help but worry over the apes in their sorely inadequate home. They are indifferently fed, allowed to eat the junk food they adore, then left to wallow in unhealthy piles of trash. No attention is paid to their needs regarding warm temperatures, adequate humidity, or their respiratory health, always a concern.

The show itself, initially a success, is an ugly, sexualized production that pretty much sums up reality television. The ASL interpreters don’t always voice precisely what the apes are signing, most heartrendingly when Makena, who is pregnant, goes into labor and signs mournfully for “Bell”, who can only watch her, along with the rest of America, on television.

Unfortunately, the bonobos weren’t enough to save the book for me. Isabel is a caricature of the young scientist outrunning a dysfunctional family, John is a variant on Mr. Sensitive Ponytail, and Amanda degenerates into a level of insecure stupidity edging into the ridiculous. Toss in the green-haired vegan teenager, a meth lab explosion, a stray dog, and John’s sudden realization that he does want a baby with Amanda after all... and voila! Bestsellerdom.

Only a few days ago I read Julia Keller’s fine essay, “Big Meanies: On the Writing of Negative Reviews”. where she argues against snark (Chicago Tribune (MCT). I wholeheartedly agree with Keller, which makes reviews like this one difficult to write. I found Ape House rather silly, but I'm not part of Gruen’s target audience. She is a commercial writer, and in that arena, garners many happy readers. There is nothing wrong in this, and as a fellow book-reviewing friend pointed out, the Sara Gruens of the publishing world underwrite the lesser-known writers I long to read.

Therefore I cannot and should not dismiss Gruen outright. Ape House wasn’t for me, and I suspect readers of PopMatters may also find the book rather lightweight.


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