Genus Envy

  • Jeffery Round (Author)
    The Honey Locust. Cormorant Books
  • Sara Gruen (Author)
    Ape House. Spiegel & Grau
Reviewed by Owen Percy

Jeffery Round is a writer well-versed in the self-consciousness of genre; on his website, he distinguishes this novel from those in his mystery series by placing it “in the tradition of The English Patient.” Unfortunately, his deliberate foray into the “literary novel” in The Honey Locust often resonates too loudly with echoes from the works of the giants upon whose shoulders he stands. In fact, in its densely lyrical style, The Honey Locust reads like the love child of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces. A blurb from Michaels praising the novel’s “insightful humanity,” in its navigation of “our frailties” and “courage” does little to dispel direct connection, but unfortunately, the comparison does not work in The Honey Locust’s favour. The plot revolves around the life of Angela Thomas, a seasoned war photojournalist who, at novel’s opening, is trapped in the exploding, smoking ruins of Bosnia. As a photographer, Thomas provides Round with a virtual feast of metaphor and metonymy, as—again, after Ondaatje and Michaels— that which she captures on camera, and the personal trove of photos she keeps amongst her spare belongings become the keys to memory, escape, and the narrative gaps that punctuate the novel. In another life, or rather, her life in Canada, we see Thomas navigating the politics of family—a dying father, a distant and antagonistic mother, and a summer cottage on Ontario’s Bruce peninsula that acts as the stage for the playing-out of Angela’s family turmoil.

The Honey Locust is the kind of novel that critics, readers, and publishers tend to praise as “elegant,” “poetic,” and “heartfelt” in its lyricism and fragmented structure. It strains to draw connections between worlds of large-scale political violence and singular emotional turmoil and strife. However, in one example, Angela wonders, whilst driving a Range Rover from her family’s summer cottage into town, “how [her undergraduate sister] would cope if [she] had to face any of the world’s real problems: starvation, genocide, illiteracy.” The Honey Locust becomes, in such examples, the very kind of novel lambasted by Stephen Henighan as escapist, unrealistic, and artificially überpoetic in When Words Deny the World. To be fair, such novels are defended by Ian Rae in From Cohen to Carson: The Poet’s Novel in Canada. Perhaps the most telling connection to invoke here, though, would what Alex Good, in Canadian Notes & Queries 73 (2008), dubbed the “Giller Bait” novel: “very serious . . . emphasizing history and geography, generally without any sense of humour, and written in a vague, pseudo-poetically lush and highbrow style.” This is not to denigrate the subject matter or story itself, but to observe that The Honey Locust tepidly strikes too many of the predictable stylistic and thematic CanLit notes (the exoticism of exile, the struggle for belonging, the fragmentation of identity, the politics of the family) in its quest for so-called literary status. Thus, it fails to offer much evolution or breadth of style and storytelling. Round remains an accomplished and capable writer, but here his major accomplishment is in swapping genre for genre: The Honey Locust might be the best “CanLit” novel you’ve already read.

Vancouver-born Sara Gruen also seems to aspire to her new novel’s generic other-yet-to-be in Ape House, though this trajectory seems generally to move in the opposite direction to The Honey Locust. That is, Gruen seems to write with a cinematographer’s eye and a directorial voice already just off page/camera. Having seen her previous novel, Water For Elephants, become a major Hollywood film, she seems to have crafted Ape House directly for the screen. Opening with a couplet of epigraphs that demonstrate the articulate linguistic echo of the famed 1970s research chimp Nim Chimpsky in the lyrics of Britney Spears, the novel sets up an intriguing framework by testing its weight on the ethical tightrope of human-primate politics. Isabel Duncan is research scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab in Kansas City, where she works with a group of six bonobo apes to develop their language and communication skills through the use of American Sign Language. When animal-rights terrorists bomb the lab, the apes are quietly sold and Isabel is left to recover from her significant injuries and ponder the implications of her life’s work and her possible futures. The novel’s sustained and admirable conflict, then, seems at first to be embodied in the multi-faceted struggle to protect the apes from exploitation by the likes of the lab-bombers and Ken Faulks—an arrogant porn producer who acquires the highly-sexual apes and produces the Big Brother-style reality television from which the novel takes its name. Threaded through and around all of this is the narrative of John Thigpen, a journalist in a self-consciously dying world of newspapers (not to mention a husband in a dying relationship which inexplicably garners a significant word count) whose initial special interest story on the bonobos quickly becomes front-page material after the bombing. And this is just the ambitious tip of the iceberg— an iceberg that quickly abandons tightrope-testing questions of ethics, animality, and ecological politics in order to become an entertaining breakneck thriller revolving around Isabel’s quest to free the bonobos from their latest form of captivity.

As a “literary novel,” though, Ape House lacks the delicacy of perception and the genuine craft of Water for Elephants, and it often moves at a too-quick cinematic pace with little time for psychological or emotional development of any particular character; Duncan is meek and uninspiring as a protagonist under siege, Thigpen is a cardboard cutout of both a journalist and a husband, and Faulks is the very caricature of an exploitative schlockmeister villain. Instead, the novel’s seams burst with action and new developments that prioritize plot over narrative. Although Ape House is exciting in both premise (its fascination with the politics of language, ethics, and animality) and promise (a philosophically and ethically complex meditation on the relationship between animals and humans), it abandons both to plot and action. One assumes, then, that the highest praise the novel might garner is that it has the potential to make a good film (the rights to which have recently been purchased by Ellen DeGeneres). But that which is so often lost in the translation from page to screen—ambiguity, metaphor, subtlety, complexity—is largely absent from Ape House from the provocative promise of its evolutionary beginnings.

This review “Genus Envy” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 158-60.

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