Colin McAdam’s new novel, A Beautiful Truth, traces two narratives using multiple viewpoints: Walt and Judy Ribke, a childless couple in Vermont, take in a young chimp named Looee to raise as their son; in a research station in Florida, a group of unrelated chimps form an uneasy family under the eyes of their scientific observers. McAdam’s prose shifts between these two stories, contrasting the rich emotionally satisfying story of Walt, who loves his second wife Judy and her desire to fill the emptiness of their life, with clear-eyed descriptions of the actions and movements of the chimps at the Girdish Institute.
In McAdam’s novel, however, there is no objectivity in the scientific study of these apes, whose behaviors appear to mimic our own. Slowly, we get drawn into the social network of these apes: to Podo and Mr. Ghoul and Mama and Burke and the ways in which their lives intersect through past and present scientific studies. Some become heroes in time while others commit acts of villainy. Love is shared, sex openly exchanged, and power dynamics shift and sway when new members arrive and others leave. Through McAdam’s prose and wild imagination, words like “oa,” “yek,” and “dulchy” accrue meaning for the reader as the novel progresses, much like “bananas” and “hat” become sense-making words for the chimps in the world of their scientific captors.
Meanwhile in Vermont, Judy learns that her subjective feelings for Looee are not enough to overlook the reality of a growing chimp who likes to raid the neighbor’s fridge, charges unfamiliar workmen in the yard, and becomes aroused by Judy’s blonde friend Susan. Looee, a mimic man, becomes devoted to his family, and McAdam paints a loving and largely successful portrait of the dynamics of the various human interactions that accumulate over time and shape Looee’s personality. Despite Walt and Judy’s best efforts, Looee cannot bridge the chimp-human divide. In his thirteenth year, an act of momentary rage tears the façade of family they have built in Vermont.
Later, Looee, the chimp raised among humans, ends up at the Girdish Institute. The cruelty Looee experiences here dramatically amplifies the disconnect from his life of plenty in Vermont. Meanwhile, the reader has grown familiar with the family of chimps in Florida, so familiar in fact that they resemble humans through their strangely personal interactions. By the time Looee joins this group of apes and the two narrative arcs converge, he’s been poked and prodded for tests, infected and treated with disease strains and experimental drugs.
McAdam’s haunting prose gives zingers of crisp images, but also leaves reverberations of desire. He successfully immerses us into the experience of the non-human primates through his careful but creative use of language. It is in its critique of scientific practices that the novel becomes less vivid and more prescriptive, but McAdam successfully negotiates the divide between objective distance and subjective participation that reveals yet again that it takes good fiction to disclose life’s most profound truths.