- Alfred A. Knopf, 310 pp.
Greener Than Thou
You know this story: a human-animal hybrid, created through a misguided sense of purpose, escapes its confines to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting public. Consider the recent movie Splice, starring Adrien Brody, the H.G. Wells tale, The Isle of Dr. Moreau, or the Minotaur from classic Greek mythology. Or maybe you know this story: a human-animal hybrid with no control over its own creation is despised and terrorized despite the fact that it is more humane than the people who hunt it. I’m thinking about examples such as Beast of X-Men fame and the similarly named creature from the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast.” This familiar plot, from the realm of myth and science fiction, is the springboard for Laurence Gonzales’s new novel, Lucy, an environmental fable.
Lucy, half human, half bonobo monkey, was genetically engineered by her scientist father, so that “humans can be moved into a more favorable spot in the evolutionary matrix, a position in which we may enjoy some of the superior qualities of our bonobo cousins.” His mission was to create “a new race of people, more like the bonobo but with human intelligence and language—therefore better suited to living in harmony with nature.” So, fully aware of her hybrid biology, Lucy spends the early years of her childhood deep in the jungles of the Congo, learning to read, write, and sing opera. She also learns such bonobo customs as building a sleeping nest in tree branches and tappping into The Stream, that mysterious mode of silent communication by which animals know where their enemies are or when a volcano will erupt. When a violent uprising leaves both her human father and monkey mother dead, she is rescued by a scientist named Jenny, and they flee to the United States.
Once there, Lucy begins the slow process of adapting to civilized society. She enrolls in high school, makes some new friends, and finds wonder in the trappings of modern life, such as YouTube and the Twilight books. Here, Gonzales includes such expected scenes as the horror of a trip to the mall: “Inside the department store, Lucy felt as if they’d been shipwrecked on a stormy sea and were floating amid the scattered cargo of a vast and fallen empire.” He also includes some unexpected moments, like her quick rise to stardom on the high school wrestling team: “By the end of the season, Lucy stood nearly undefeated…No one could explain how Lucy could take down opponents so efficiently…When asked where she came by her uncommon agility and strength she attributed it to an active life growing up in the jungle.” Throughout this portion of the story, we are constantly reminded of Lucy’s genetic superiority and her intense belief in the sacredness of Nature. She is smarter, stronger, more beautiful, and more in tune with her environment. It seems that her father’s mission was a success.
Because Lucy looks like a regular girl, it takes a while for Jenny to discover her unique genetic past. But when Jenny does find out the truth, she fears for Lucy’s safety, and rightly so. Soon after her simian genealogy is discovered, Lucy is pursued by suspicious school administrators, murderous religious radicals, and shady governmental organizations. Even the president, who bears a striking resemblance to our past commander-in-chief (you know, the one who didn’t believe in global warming) is in on it. In order to elude her captors, Lucy must embrace her wild side and use both her human intelligence and superhuman intuition. Does she escape? Does she find acceptance? Does she return to the jungle from whence she came? Remember: you know this story. You can probably guess.
When a plot-line is as familiar as this one, and as embedded into our shared cultural experience, it takes a strong, innovative writer to make it new. Consider Michael Chabon’s treatment of the detective story in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union or Cormac McCarthy’s re-imagining of the Old West showdown in No Country for Old Men. These writers were able to transform the old clichés into something fresh and exciting, something which could be used to comment on contemporary society by using their respective genre or trope as a point of departure.
Unfortunately, Gonzales is no such writer. He is able to carry the story along in a mostly satisfying way, and create a sense of tension akin to a Dan Brown or Dean Koontz novel. But he brings nothing new to the table. All the supporting characters, including Jenny and Amanda, Lucy’s best friend, fall flat. Attempts at characterization, such as Jenny’s involvement in a girl’s shelter, or Amanda’s dysfunctional family life, are not enough to flesh them out into real, relatable people. Even Lucy is too good, too perfect, to be believable. She is not a person, as she asserts, but a stereotype: the saintly creature, the evolutionary ideal.
By keeping her so, and by using her as a sort of spokesperson (spokeshybrid?) for the environmental movement, Gonzales casts a distracting “greener than thou” light on the novel. What’s more, the serious ethical and moral questions raised about genetic engineering are left unanswered, and the issue of her person-hood is pushed aside by the thrill of the chase. Since Lucy is an automatic outsider, her search for belonging could act as an allegory for other ostracized racial or ethnic groups. In this politically-charged world, that possibility is much more exciting and fraught with suspense than what we get in this story.