The Question of Being Human
A Beautiful Truth
(Soho Press, 2013)
In the early 1970s, a childless couple in Vermont adopts a baby chimp from a circus clown for $6,000 and begins raising him as their son. This is the early premise for Colin McAdam’s third novel, A Beautiful Truth, and if it sounds familiar, it is: we’ve seen the same story played out everywhere from Life magazine’s well-known account of Lucy (the article that, in the novel, incidentally inspires husband Walter Ribke to acquire the chimp), to the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, to the 2009 headlines of a woman being mauled by a “pet” chimpanzee. Predictably, none of these stories, real or fictional, end well for either the adoptees or parents, with consequences that are usually tragic, if not downright disastrous. The lesson we are supposed to learn from these accounts is that apes, no matter how much they may resemble humans, are not, and to treat them as such is not only naïve, but also dangerous.
McAdam doesn’t shy away from the physical danger of raising chimps among humans in his novel. Looee, the surrogate son, is described with increasing emphasis on his physicality and strength, and several foreshadowing events occur before the inevitable tragedy occurs. Yet the surprise in the book is in all the ways that Looee is more than his apeness. As we move through the opening chapters detailing Looee’s life among the Ribkes (and theirs among him), we get a moving portrait of what is unmistakably a tender child trying to come into his own. Looee sneaks out in the middle of the night and hides beers under his bed, develops adolescent crushes and watches sports, enjoys chicken kiev and wears overalls when he wants to look handsome. He has bouts of insecurity, anger, and depression, and feels lonely or proud according to the cues of the people around him, cues he struggles to, but can’t quite always, understand. Throughout the book, both before and after the incident that changes his life, it becomes painfully clear how misunderstood Looee is. The great tragedy of his life is that he considers himself human and no one else does. This is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the aftermath of the tragic incident that tears him from his parents—his desire for a forgiveness that can never be understood and therefore never given is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the book.
This fine line between what we deem “human” and what we deem “ape” is at the heart of McAdam’s novel, along with related thoughts on the ways in which both species communicate and love one another. And perhaps if McAdam had presented us with just Looee’s story, this book would be another familiar, if wonderfully wrought, meditation on these philosophical questions. Yet McAdam offers a parallel storyline alongside Looee’s, and it is in these sections that the novel is taken to an exciting place. This second thread centers around a group of chimps at a Florida research facility, the Girdish Institute, but instead of following a traditional third-person omniscient narrative, the narrative sits squarely inside the apes at the facility. Using an almost childlike syntax at points, and poetic sensibilities at others, McAdam combines fresh use of phrasing with created “ape” vocabulary to create a gorgeous portrait of how the world might be experienced through the consciousness of a chimpanzee. The result is lyrical, affecting, and strangely authentic (as authentic as decoding into “chimp” can be). Even when it’s not entirely clear what certain words refer to, the context allows the reader to inhabit the world with only the slightest of pauses, while maintaining the strangeness of visiting unfamiliar society. It is important to note that we are able to understand the contexts because McAdam paints the chimps as exhibiting behaviors familiar to us in our own worlds. Like us, they struggle with power, politics, love, and lust, and this universality is underscored by how easy it is to grasp what is happening, despite unfamiliar terms (and isn’t this true of humans of all cultures visiting each other across the world?).
A word of caution to those who are squeamish about animal testing and the like: this novel is not kind to its animals. The substantial sections that take place in an animal testing facility are hard to bear if you’ve bought into the humanity of the chimp protagonists. To McAdam’s credit, these sections didn’t feel preachy; instead they felt necessary and real to the arc of the story, a misfortune in Looee’s coming-of-age story, however difficult to stomach. That being said, the act of empathizing with a chimp in such a situation naturally causes one to re-evaluate the merits of medical testing.
While McAdam clearly has specific thoughts regarding where chimps lie along the spectrum of humanity (as well as where humans lie on that same spectrum), the book is best when it lets its existential opinions take a backseat, and focuses on simply following Looee and the other chimps through their minds and lives. While there isn’t much with regards to plot movement that one can’t make a general guess upfront, the book is nonetheless riveting for both its inventive language and heartbreaking characters, almost all of whom are non-human. By the end of the book, Looee felt like my child, the injured, misunderstood kid I wanted to hug and assure things would be okay. The kid I wanted to protect and take under my wing. But of course I couldn’t—one, because he’s fictional, and two, because he’s a chimp—and this feeling haunted me for days. I don’t know which reason frustrated me more, but both possibilities pointed to the fact that McAdam has written an unforgettable book, one that, remarkably, had me thinking less about how human chimps can be, and more about what that word “human” even means.