Culture  Monkeying around with evolution

New novel falls short of solving the great scientific controversy of our time

The conflict between science and religion is one of today’s most lively political issues, and is the source of many a vigorous debate. Mark Laxer’s brand new novel, The Monkey Bible, attempts to intervene in this debate and achieve something of a reconciliation between Darwinist and creationist positions.

The novel follows a deeply devout young man as he comes to terms with the fact that due to a sinister and top-secret government experiment, his genealogy may not be entirely human. The experiences that follow from this revelation lead him to question the rigid divide between humans and animals, as well as the Church’s position on where evolution fits into the picture of what it is to be human. Such an educational and reconciliatory premise for a novel is of course commendable and politically incisive. The real trouble, and where Laxer seriously falters, is being able to pull this kind of thing off with any nuance or aplomb.

Far too often, The Monkey Bible reads like a thinly (or not-even-remotely)-veiled polemic for the inherent good of science and scientists. This is not to say that this reviewer necessarily disagrees with the sentiment, but it is this vitriolic quality of the book that cuts through and overwhelms anything that might make it enjoyable to read, such as a compelling plot, character development, convincing dialogue, or any of the other niceties that one might expect from decent fiction.

Instead the reader is left with an endless series of conversations between the novel’s characters on biology and evolution that read like Socratic dialogues (with all the condescension, but none of the wit) instead of furthering the story. Each minor plot development seems to occur only as an excuse for Laxer to have one of his characters wax lyrical for ten pages on something that bothers him. Random diatribes recur as motifs, like one of the protagonists’ hatred of cellphones: “Cell phone users have become more than a nuisance – they’ve taken over the global airwaves in cities, airports, supermarkets, classrooms, bathrooms, and remote sites in nature. You can’t get away from them!”

Such is the novel’s main failure; its seeming inability to function as anything other than a forum for Laxer’s own rather patronising lectures. This also manifests itself in an infuriating tendency to erect straw men as convenient interlocutors so that the characters can further expound upon the infinite goodness of science. The main villains in the novel are a neo-Nazi and a postmodernist university professor, and both are set up as two-dimensional figures of anti-rationality, transparently functioning only to further Laxer’s own agenda. What else could explain his brutal and basically arcane parody of deconstruction? “They represent science and rocks and male phalo-gender-pleni-potentiary-istic hardness…The self-referential Derridarian [sic] ploy of non-linguistic intercourse proves, through the power struggles of the Euroneuro-phallically challenged, that there can exist no meaningful communication.”

The particular view of science that is espoused in The Monkey Bible – as infinitely rational, nobly devoted to the pursuit of truth, and above all posing scientists as paternal overseers of humanity – strikes me as somewhat problematic, if not rather insidious. It deifies science and ultimately evacuates any legitimacy from critiques of certain aspects of science, such as its professed neutrality. Laxer’s book, in this sense, doesn’t so much reconcile, or explore the intersections between, science and religion, as much as it sends a strong message that science and religion can coexist, as long as religion knows its place.

The book also comes with an accompanying music CD by “an unwavering optimist who believes in the power of positive music with all this heart and soul,” if you’re into that kind of thing.