Feb 6, 2008

Reviewing Elizabeth Hess's biography of a talking chimp

Some writers can make something as bland as bananas interesting by the way they write. Others choose a subject matter that is so inherently fascinating that the prose simply has to stay out of the way of the material. Elizabeth Hess’s Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human falls into the second category.

Essentially an animal’s biography, the book chronicles the at times heartbreaking birth-to-death journey of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee at the center of the much-publicized 1970s experiment that aimed to disprove linguist Noam Chompsky’s claim that language was a uniquely human trait.

Could a baby chimp be raised among humans and learn to communicate with people using American Sign Language? That was the question the researchers planned to answer. What do you do with an animal that is half wild and half human? That’s the question they never anticipated.

The first half of the book, which focuses on Project Nim, as the experiment was called, is a page-turner. Hess’s prose is both educational and entertaining. It moves along so easily that I could almost overlook the fact that Hess introduces us to 50 named characters in the first 50-odd pages.

The book’s real muscle comes from its deep reportage. Hess gathered incredible details from interviews with the people who moved in and out of Nim’s life: those who raised him like a son, those who taught him his first words, those who became his advocates later in life and those who would ultimately fail him. Hess fills in the gaps by combing through countless academic papers, books and articles.

Through the course of the book, Nim rightly becomes its heart and soul, growing into a complex character, a lovable and sympathetic protagonist you can’t help but root for.

Post-experiment life for Nim is, sadly, much less interesting. Nobody is paying attention to the chimp’s day-to-day activities. It’s a biographer’s perennial challenge. Some chapters of a life, chimp or human, aren’t well-documented. Hess’s solution? Shift focus to other researchers conducting experiments on different chimps. During this nearly 100-page section, the plot plods through some tedious detours, making us wait a long time to find out what happens to our primate friend. But like the rest of the world, I’d fallen for Nim and cared little to invest emotionally in the twenty-some other chimps Hess introduces.

But Hess succeeds on a critical point: The story of Nim is hardly forgettable.

For more reviews of new works in narrative nonfiction, such as David Shields' new book "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead," visit Etude's Books in Brief .

1 comment:

Dyllis said...

People should read this.

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