Canadian/American author Sara Gruen‘s first novel, Riding Lessons was a best seller and her second, Flying Changes, sold hundred of thousands of copies. Even still (and this proves it’s a tough time to be in the publishing business), her third, Water for Elephants was turned down by then-publisher Avon Books. That book, a historical novel about a traveling circus, went on to climb the New York Times Best Seller list for 12 weeks in 2006 and won the 2007 BookBrowse award for most popular book. (Someone at Avon got shunned around the water cooler.)
Following that success, Gruen’s fourth novel, Ape House, caused a bidding war (no one wanted to be Avon). According to a 2009 New York Times, “Spiegel & Grau has shown its taste for whimsical novels about animals already: Three years ago it paid $5 million to acquire two forthcoming novels from Sara Gruen, the author of Water for Elephants. Ms. Gruen is working on Ape House, a novel about bonobo apes who star in a reality television show.”
Five million may sound like a lot, but, having had an advance read of Ape House, set to be released on Tuesday, Sept. 7, I’d say Spiegel & Grau made a smart purchase. Okay, reading the dust jacket worried me: “Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani and Mekena are no ordinary apes. These bonobos, like others of their species, are capable of reason and carrying on deep relationships — but unlike most bonobos, they also know American Sign Language.” Great, I thought. Jane Goodall. Not the Jane Goodall isn’t awesome and field work with animals isn’t informative but it’s no Sex and the City.
Only Ape shares more with that Candace Bushnell novel-turned-TV series-turned-movie series than the dust jacket lets on. Ape‘s bonobos alone are well-developed characters, each with his or her own likes (M&Ms) and dislikes, sense of humor and means of self-expression. And then there are the people surrounding the bonobos who, at the book’s opening, live in a language lab in Kansas City. Scientist Isabel Duncan prefers the company of apes to most humans, though she’s secretly engaged to Peter Benton who was recently appointed to the Great Ape Language Lab. Isabel’s assistant is a 19 year-old tattooed intern with pink hair. The story begins with a visit to the language lab by three journalists from The Philadelphia Inquirer, including John Thigpen who immediately strikes up a rapport with both the bonobos (except for Mbongo, who calls him a “bad dirty toilet” in sign language) and Isabel.
Soon after John’s departure, the lab is bombed by supposed animal rights activists. Isabel is left horribly injured and the bonobos disappear — only to turn up later on a reality TV show called “Ape House.” Isabel, who rarely trusts anyone, must enlist the help of John and Celia in order to save the apes.
That’s the premise, but the story — which moves at a brisk clip with enough twists and turns and quirky character asides to require some serious focus on the part of the reader — goes much deeper. What’s interesting is that the “Ape House” show is taking place (the bonobos live in a house where they pretty much do whatever they want, all the time; there’s a computer where they can order any item they desire, and a truck then delivers said item over the wall that surrounds their house — so, for awhile it’s a non-stop orgy of cheese burgers and pizza) the human population is holding its own reality show — and not faring as well as the bonobos.
John’s wife, Amanda, is drifting into depression as her writing career fails. The promise of working on a TV series in L.A. has her running off to get Botox injections and Louboutin pumps. John’s rival, a reporter called Cat, steals his story to boost her own career. Isabel’s associates are hiding details related to the lab bombing to protect their own interests and, in the hotel where John is stationed to report on the “Ape House” show, the cast of characters is drawn straight from the underbelly of society. Meth dealers, Russian strippers and a porn king (Faulks) linked to the “Ape House” show number among them.
But even as these people’s lives twist and crumble, the bonobos maintain with a surprising degree of grace. When show producers introduce firearms and alcohol to “Ape House,” hoping for chaos to raise ratings, the results are unexpected. “When Lola accidentally set off a cap gun and sent Mbongo into hysterics, Sam collected them all, went out to the courtyard, and heaved them over the wall … John assumed Faulks was hoping the bonobos would get drunk and do horrible things to each other, as chimpanzees had been known to do. In fact, after the cap guns were tossed and the channel changer once again became responsive, the bonobos discovered the beer, had a short, happy orgy, and then sipped quietly in front of I Love Lucy.”
According to Gruen’s web site, “Most of the conversations between the bonobos and humans in Ape House are based on actual conversations with great apes, including Koko, Washoe, Booey, Kanzi and Panbanisha.” This makes sense, as the fictional bonobos are so real, so human and relatable, that they play as important a role in Ape as their human counterparts — likely the theory Gruen planned to explore in her writing. The idea that animals can communicate (and, as John says at one point, the Bonobos “were all the more remarkable because it meant they were competent in two human languages” — English and American Sign) and relate to the human world is a bit of a mind-blower. That Gruen approaches this idea from the vantage of fiction — an engaging, cliff hanger of a novel at that — rather than a dry, scientific work of non-fiction, is especially compelling.
Gruen and her family recently relocated to Asheville, which makes the author’s book launch at Malaprop’s next week even more exciting. The reading takes place on Friday, Sept. 11, 7 p.m. This is a ticketed event — one ticket comes with each purchase of Ape House. For info, call 254-6734.