Teenagers push buttons, that's their job in life. In “Lucy,” Laurence Gonzales has created the ultimate button-pusher: a winsome, Shakespeare-quoting, YouTube-using creature who loves the Art Institute of Chicago but doesn't know her own strength. As most parents and teachers know, there are many times when most teenagers seem far from human, but Gonzales' invention, Lucy, the star of his eponymous novel, has a good reason: She is a hybrid of human and ape.
This may seem like a wacky idea for a mild-manned, congenial father of three children in Evanston, but Gonzales comes by his boundary-pushing honestly. He is not a reclusive, anti-social scientist scheming in his basement laboratory, but rather a journalist with a longtime interest in life, death and survival, stemming from his father's experience as a B-17 pilot in World War II when a shell hit his plane and his father was the lone miraculous survivor.
Laurence Gonzales built a career writing about danger, accidents and endurance in books such as his 2003 best-seller, “Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why.”
The road to the new novel has been a winding one, as he worked on fiction writing techniques and experimented with different forms. At one point, “Lucy” was a musical comedy for the theater. But teenage girls can be wily and persuasive, so it was finally Amelia, one of his daughters, now 25, who embraced the novel and urged him to commit to the project.
Perhaps because Gonzales is a survival expert, over the years he and his family are adherents to what what one of his daughters articulated as the “Gutter Theory of Life.” As he explained the concept “you don't want to be laying in the gutter, having been run over by a bus, the last bit of your life ebbing away, and thinking, ‘I should have taken that rafting trip, learned to surf or flown upside down.'”
As much as the distaff side of his family encouraged his work on “Lucy,” Gonzales gathered insight from his then-toddler son, Jonas, who did his part to spark insight into the connections between humans and apes, particularly the bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee. One of the largest groups of bonobos in captivity is in the Milwaukee County Zoo, where Gonzales would spend hours observing their antics.
Gonzales recalls observing a young bonobo climb upon a huge plastic egg in the enclosure, lie on top and spin it in circles at great speed, and realized the parallel between his son's play and that of the bonobo. Both seemed to engage in repetitive efforts, requiring strength and stamina, with no particular purpose or goal. Similarities between boy and bonobo were not limited to the realm of play. “And, of course,” Gonzales recalls wryly, “watching a bonobo eat and watching a 3-year-old eat certainly will help you to make the connections.”
“Lucy” is more than a high-school drama, a fish-out-of-water novel about how a hybrid girl tries to fit in at a suburban Chicago high school. Don't think of the movie “Mean Girls,” in which the home-schooled Lindsay Lohan character moves to the U.S. and gets an education in high school popularity. This “Lucy” is an action-packed politically charged thriller that puts evolution forth as an unassailable fact, and raises ethical and moral questions about biotechnical science, government power and the morality of leadership.
An expert in survival, Gonzales seems to resist boundaries himself. “‘Lucy' pushes everybody's buttons,” says Gonzales. “She is the biggest target of intolerance that society of ours can breed.”
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