Friday, August 20, 2010

Book Review - The Monkey Bible, by Mark Laxer

Title:  The Monkey Bible
Author:  Mark Laxer
Genre:  Literary Fiction (?)
Rating:  3.75 out of 5 apes

The Monkey Bible promises to bridge the gap between religion and science, and to blur the line between fact and faith.  I take the journey to see if author Mark Laxer delivers.

The novel begins with Emmanuel, a young Christian man, finding proof of his father's long buried secret in the attic - Emmanuel may have been the subject of genetic research, in which his genes were combined with those of a primate.  This life-altering discovery leaves Emmanuel at a loss.  As a Christian, he has learned that humans are blessed by God.  If he is any less human, is he any less loved by the power that created him?  He then embarks upon a journey to discover his true identity.

A book like The Monkey Bible is very difficult to review, because one can never truly categorize it.  Is it science fiction?  A coming-of-age tale? A romance?  Similarly, it is difficult to classify it as simply "a novel".  There is a story and a handful of characters, of course, but this reader gets a sense that Laxer's purpose for this novel is so much greater than simple story telling.  It has been called an allegory, which is perhaps closer to the mark than "novel".  In truth, The Monkey Bible is all of these things.

At the heart of The Monkey Bible is the conflict between science and religion:  both the internal conflict of Emmanuel struggling to uncover the truth of who (or what) he is, and the larger philosophical debate that has been at the forefront of our culture for hundreds of years.  It is not a book that supports only intelligent design or only evolution, but attempts to reconcile their differences and proposes a theory that encompasses both beliefs.  Laxer takes care in defining his terms and teaching his audience about the building blocks of things like genetics, mutations, and evolution as well as the basic beliefs of Emmanuel's faith.  In this way, Laxer puts every reader on an even footing - ready to go on the journey of self-discovery with Emmanuel.

Another important message that is strongly felt in The Monkey Bible is environmentalism and wildlife conservation.  Although "going green" has become somewhat cliche in our culture, Laxer attempts to open our eyes to an entirely different problem - extinction.  We share so much of our DNA with primates, Laxer suggests, that harming our hairy cousins is no different than harming our selves and our own loved ones.

Unfortunately, all of these themes come on a bit too strong throughout the book, at the expense of the story and the characters themselves.  One can hear Laxer's voice and beliefs in every character, and there is little development or conflict between characters.  It seems that Laxer has sacrificed some of what makes novels fun to read in order to get his message accross.

With that being said, The Monkey Bible is still an enjoyable read.  Why?  Because it makes you think.  Laxer brings issues to the forefront that most people don't usually think about.  For example:  how many napkins do you take when eating at a fast food restaurant?  How many of those do you actually use? 

The Monkey Bible proves to be a worthy exploration into what it means to be human, and the responsibilities - to the planet, each other, and all living things - that we have inherited.

3.75 out of 5 apes.