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Chimp Lit: In Search of Story in Four New Books

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 37, Number 1, 2014
pp. 171-181 | 10.1353/mis.2014.0005

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The impulse to write a book appears to run like a fever through those of us who’ve lived with apes. We all have our reasons.

—Rosemary Cooke, narrator-protagonist of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Woman Who Lost Her Face: How Charla Nash Survived the World’s Most Infamous Chimpanzee Attack
NBC News and Meredith Vieira. NBC Publishing, 2012, 85 pp., $0.00 (e-book).

Five years have passed since a Connecticut woman named Charla Nash suffered a gruesome and grievously life-altering experience. One February day in 2009, the fifty-five-year-old was attacked by a chimpanzee in suburban Stamford. If you’ve forgotten the specifics, The Woman Who Lost Her Face, a free e-book produced by NBC News, will remind you of the salient, savage details: adopted by Nash’s friend Sandra Herold fourteen years earlier and raised as if he had been human offspring, Travis the chimp “had torn off [Nash’s] hands and mutilated her face. Her upper jaw and eyelids were ripped off. Her nose was almost gone, as was most of her scalp.” Remarkably, Nash survived the attack; ultimately, she underwent a successful face transplant. Efforts to give her new hands failed, and Nash lost her eyes as well.

Travis the chimp’s vicious actions surely wouldn’t surprise famed primatologist Franz de Waal. As de Waal observes early in his latest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist (the title notwithstanding, the book discusses chimps at least as much as it does bonobos—more about that later), “I feel very much at home with [chimpanzees], but I never have any illusions about how ‘nice’ they are.” Equally comfortable with chimps and other primates and similarly cognizant of the dangers they can pose is Sherri Speede, whose Kindred Beings was released just a few months ago. But lest you think that publishers’ 2013 catalogs featured chimps in nonfiction only, last year also produced two noteworthy novels about chimpanzees: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth. As we’ll see, some of the fictional humans—even those equipped with scientific expertise—take risks with chimpanzees that one cannot imagine de Waal or Speede sanctioning. Together, the four books inspire reflections on the bonds and boundaries between and among humans and chimps.

The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates
Frans de Waal. W. W. Norton, 2013, 304 pp., $27.95 (hardcover)

Unlike most of these books’ authors and characters, I’ve never been what one might call “an animal person.” My only childhood pets were a single goldfish (who survived, if memory serves, barely one week) and a parakeet whose care fell entirely to my mother. No dogs, cats, horses or any other creatures for me. Well into adulthood, I remain happily petless. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that I began my reading journey through the world of “chimp lit” with de Waal’s book. It was the first of the four that I was able to obtain, but more important, I expected to learn from the esteemed author of Chimpanzee Politics and Peacemaking Among Primates some basic facts about our simian relatives.

The book contains many. I appreciated the explanation of what de Waal calls “our immediate family”—the “great” apes: chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, and the “lesser” apes: gibbons and siamangs. Moreover, it was useful to discover that ours is “a tiny family” compared, say, with the multiplicity of monkey and prosimian species. Also helpful and interesting: an illustration that contrasts a pre-1960s evolutionary tree with one that is DNA-based. Its caption notes, “Until the 1960s, humans enjoyed their own branch on the evolutionary tree separate from the apes. . . . DNA-based trees . . . place humans closer to chimpanzees (Ch) and bonobos (Bo) than to gorillas (Go) and orangutans (Or).”

De Waal’s book is also replete with vivid anecdotes and observations gleaned from the author’s many years of fieldwork and research. These serve de Waal well as he provides “evidence for animal altruism” and “community concern,” all of which support the claims that “the building blocks of...

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