Thursday, 23 September 2010

Mark Laxer's The Monkey Bible: A Hybrid Book about a Hybrid That's Worth Reading

"But you've been looking for Truth in a work of fiction," one of the characters wails near the end of The Monkey Bible, a "modern allegory" by Mark Laxer.

Well, why not? the reader might ask about this novel, full of truth about science, evolution, biology, human hearts, and the relation between all creatures on Earth, particularly those in the great family of apes. Quite fittingly, this book that is a hybrid containing story, theory and much information, has its center a character who is a hybrid too--or appears to be.

Emmanuel is a young man from Indonesia, who discovers shortly before he's scheduled to go to the US for college that he may be the result of a genetics experiment. It seems that during a dark, violent period in Indonesian history, scientists introduced chimpanzee genes into fetuses which women captured in armed conflict were carrying. Emmanuel is shocked to learn that he may be one of them, and what begins as the usual youthful search for identity leads him around the world to find out if this is true, and, if so, if he, as a "manimal," can have a spiritual life and be beloved by God.

The book can be read as science fiction or fable, or as way of presenting complicated, controversial ideas in an engaging fashion that will reach more than an academic audience. Certainly, Laxer has gone all out to attract not-just-your-ordinary reader. The book's website has great flash, the launch in Washington DC last week featured music written with Eric Maring (a CD of the songs are included in the hard cover edition of the book,) and Laxer is doing a book tour that will take him across the US and into Canada. Friday he'll read at the Baltimore Book Festival and Sunday he's at Southern Independent Book Sellers meeting in Daytona, FL.

This is not bad for guy who makes his living as a computer programmer and devotes his spare time to such causes as safeguarding African habitat and the chimps who live there. There's much of him in many of his characters, and the major female one, Lucy, is just as smart and pretty as his own wife, biologist Sara Lourie. (Conflict of interest notice: both of them are friends of Elin, and Sara cycled by with a copy of the book for me to review a couple of weeks ago.)

The book is handsomely produced with full-colour, glossy photos near the end which reproduce the "Monkey Bible" that Lucy writes. It would have been nice to have a "suggested reading" section at the back so the reader can learn more about the scientific rsearch. The beginning of the story also stutters a bit as we're flipped from one character to another. But this is a good read for anyone who likes to be entertained and introduced to some serious ideas at the same time.

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