I read Patrick Nevins’ Man in a Cage in one sitting on an airplane. My real movement through time and space in an engineering marvel was an apt location to take in Nevins’ work. The novel moves deftly us through time, space, and the science, or, to be more accurate, the pseudo-science of its day, the late 19th century. Man in a Cage fictionalizes the experience of the real Richard Garner, a man who fancied himself one of the leading naturalists of the day and who set out to expand Darwin’s theory of evolution through the study of primates. Nevins’ work is fiction but it is clear he sourced his material carefully and he does not shy away from the pervasive racism of the epoch. At the novel’s outset, Gardner shares his belief that primates make use of language, albeit in a primitive manner. He first developed this theory through the observation of primates in captivity and becomes convinced that he can prove it with the use of the phonograph as a recording machine. Garner cites a scientist who recorded the songs of Maine’s Indians. “If a scientist could use the phonograph to study the primitive speech of America’s savages, then it followed that an intrepid thinker could use the same technology to capture the speech of monkeys and apes –”. As a reader, it was tempting to put the book down at that moment. Why would I want to read about an individual with such repugnant thoughts, even in fiction? But Nevins is too good of a writer to let go. He nimbly walks us through Garner’s quest, giving us brief history lessons in the process. Gardner, himself, despite displaying these bold-faced prejudices is drawn as a complex character. He questions slavery, frowns upon the institutions of religion, and appears to hold a deep affection and caring for his simian companions. He’s a sworn man of science but can only get published in a popular magazine and struggles to fund his research. Finally, he’s also an unreliable narrator.
The novel’s core revolves around Gardner’s eventual trip to Gabon where he intends to study chimpanzees in the wild and ultimately prove his theory. Gardner’s journey is never smooth. He fails to secure his vaunted phonograph and finds himself ridiculed rather than hailed in London. In Africa, he becomes beholden to Father Buleon, a Catholic Priest who oversees the mission of St. Anne’s which will become the base for Gardner’s foray into the deep jungle. Buleon also sees himself as a naturalist having been employed by the France’s National Museum to study primates. The two men meet and Nevins gives us a perfect window into Gardner’s mindset. “I nearly choked on claret so surprised was I by Buleon’s declaration, for I never would have guessed that an esteemed museum would trust scientific work to a missionary.” As the novel continues, and we see the conflict between the two men escalate, we’re never quite sure of whom to trust. Nevins also begin to weave in African characters. On his first foray into the jungle, Gardner falls sick, hallucinates a speaking gorilla, and is rescued by a native translator, Odanga, who quickly shows himself to be Gardner’s intellectual superior. In discussing slavery, an institution that greatly benefitted Gardner’s family, Odanga says, “I have learned enough to know that American slaves were machines whose backs and families were broken to build up that nation.” This statement, from an African in the late 19th century resonates across the ages and causes Gardner to reflect that he “could no longer come to his country’s defense.” Unfortunately, Gardner is not enough of a thinker to extend this epiphany to an understanding of racial equality, maintaining his view of the African as a savage.
Eventually Gardner installs himself in a cage in a jungle, derisively named Fort Gorilla. Despite the hardship and detractors, Gardner does not let himself be deterred from his mission. Once settled, he writes his neglected wife that he fully expects his phonograph to arrive and that his trip will be a “major contribution to natural history.” The ensuing pages contain hilarity, tragedy, and pathos, but it is not giving away too much to say that Gardner, though firm in his beliefs to the end, doesn’t make that contribution. He does find an orphaned chimpanzee, befriends and possibly lusts after a young nun named Sister Marie, and alternates between the comfort of the mission and his cage in the deep jungle. Late in the novel, we learn that Fort Gorilla sits but a mile from the mission and that it’s unclear how many nights Gardner actually spent there. His reliability varies with his scientific acumen. Nevins gives us hints of Kurtz’ descent in Heart of Darkness but never let Gardner go that far. Man in a Cage also provides a nod to Conrad’s great critic, Achebe, in its portrayal of the humanity of the African characters, a humanity Gardner does begin to greater appreciate over time.
Unlike Kurtz, Gardner does manage to leave Africa and his return to Europe and America is marked both in comedy – he’s amazed by people commuting on rubber wheeled bicycles, as well as introspection – he finds himself, for the first time, looking squarely in the eye of a free Black man in America. Ultimately, Gardner never finds scientific fame but cannot resist returning to the African continent where he continues to evolve in his views of the native people. The final paragraph and final line of the novel are beautiful and haunting.
Man in a Cage highlights the blatant racism of colonialism, ponders on the scientific method, and gives a portrait of a complicated man exposed to both, but not fully aware of either. The writing is fluid with precise historical details and subtle humor. But this novel does not strictly belong in the realm of historical fiction. We live in a time when basic scientific facts are disputed by charlatans with power. In a time when some of those same powerbrokers are mandating that books about folks who look different than they do, be removed from school shelves. Nevins’ novel aptly illustrates Faulkner’s famous quote about the past and gives us a view of our current realities. This debut novel is remarkable and this reader is left to wonder where Nevins’ interests and talents will next lead.