Theory of Bastards
This story concerns social anthropologist Frankie Burke who receives a Foundation grant from a prestigious research institute to attempt to prove her theory of bastards by studying the behaviour of bonobos, an endangered species of apes who are exceptional in that they do not war with rival groups and have never been known to kill. With its repeated recording of the pre-prandial sex acts of the bonobos, the book comes across occasionally as more voyeuristic than the scientific research it purports to be. But despite that, the story does eventually grow on one in a strange sort of way. We wonder how the animals will fare in the wake of a far-fetched apocalypse, and how the growing closeness of Frankie and Stotts, her research assistant, the good guy ex-Marine who acts initially as a mere chorus to the goings on, will develop
But the plot is plodding at times and there is far too much boring repetition, pages long, about the functionality and behaviour of the bonobos. And because the dénouement of the human characters in contrast is so sketchy and predictable, and because the research throughout the book and indeed judging by the thoroughness of the Appendix, is so thorough, one wonders if its contents would have been better served as non-fiction. In places there is a bulldozing quality in the way Schulman pushes some of her characters on us rather than allowing readers to take them on board in their own ways and in their own time. The debilitating illness Frankie suffers from is briefly named as ‘endo’ which presumably is endometriosis, a painful disorder of the uterus. But the illness has little bearing on the plot, and one wonders what is the point of it in the story except perhaps as a device to elicit sympathy from the reader or to heighten her vulnerability among the primates whom she is studying. Also in her preoccupation with her ailment, there is a touch of arrogance in her refusal to take medical surveys and as as she tries to justify herself: ‘Through her years of being a patient, Frankie had earned the equivalent of a doctorate in how to make the medical system meet her needs.’
However, there are moments where Schulman shows that she has skills, not only as a scientific writer, but also as a writer of deep human insights when, in a moment of reflection and unhampered by statistics, she glimpses Stott drinking a glass of lemonade: ‘In this moment she had a glimpse of him as an organism, a multicellular creature pumping liquid into his alimentary canal, an animal wrapped in clothes and balanced on his haunches. Civilization is based upon a charade, such careful theatre. Each of us buttoning up our costumes, hiding our fur, living in carefully sculpted sets, while we pretend we’ve never pooped or had coitus. The illusion broken each time we tighten into death or squeeze a baby out our hoo-ha or fall in love.’
Although rather abrupt and, despite irritating reiterations of a pet word ‘knuckled,’ Schulman delivers a satisfying ending where animals and humans and emotions all come together in a heart-wrenching conclusion: ‘She no longer thought of “home” as anything to do with drywall or a door… She listened to his (Stotts’) heart. His thumb ran down her spine. Goliath rolled over and draped an arm over both of them. Marge patted Stotts’ head. Id and Tooch nursed on their thumbs with an audible suck. The slow respiration of them all.’
James Lawless is a poet and novelist; https://www.jameslawless.net
Published in the Irish Examiner, 24/11/2018.