The basis of Lydia Millet’s short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys struck me as soon as I heard it: celebrities plus animals. A strange thing to connect stories; a strange thing to read stories about, it seems. The opening one, “Sexing the Pheasant,” is about Madonna going out shooting with her then-husband Guy Ritchie. She wounds a pheasant and, as she watches it die, her thoughts race from the phallic symbolism of guns to Kabbalah to class struggle and Lenin’s tailoring and the nature of celebrity, and she all the while congratulating herself on remembering to think in Anglicisms, like “tube” and “naff.” Fictionalizing such a really major celebrity, someone who continues to be famous now, is a bit off-putting. In one way, the story is the ultimate in tabloid voyeurism—but it’s fictional. And as such it is itself on the nature of celebrity.
That sounds a bit dull, but the genius here is in the animals. They serve as a muse, not necessarily to the celebrity (as in Madonna’s case) but to the story itself. Animals’ place in the human imagination makes up the backbone of each piece, but always in a different way. In “Thomas Edison and Vasil Golakov,” the pathos of elephants leads to disturbing tales about an American icon; “Chomsky, Rodents” becomes a meditation on family feeling and how much of it can be revealed through the disposal of a hamster cage; “Jimmy Carter’s Rabbit” turns a bizarro media event into the cracked conduit for a tale of secrecy and guilt in small-town Georgia.
“Sir Henry,” the story of David Hasselhoff’s dog and dogwalker, was my favorite. When the narrator describes Sir Henry in the mental words of his caretaker, his respect and true fellow-feeling for the dog are infectious:
The dog was serious, always had been. No room for levity. Those around him might be lighthearted. Often they laughed, sometimes even at his expense—the miniature size, bouncing gait, flopping ears. He was a dachshund. Not his fault. You were what you were. He would have preferred the aspect of an Alsatian, possibly a Norwegian elkhound. He viewed himself as one of these large and elegant breeds.
For the dogwalker, Sir Henry has the dignity of one of these large and elegant breeds, a dignity far and away above that of his owner, referred to only with the contemptuously vague phrase “the entertainer.” And there comes another of the sideways takes on celebrities: even the revelation that Sir Henry’s master is actually someone famous—complete with passerby to note that “They love him in Germany”—that fame is subverted.
The jacket copy on the collection claims that “[i]n much fiction, animals exist as author stand-ins—or even more reductively as symbols of good and evil.” Millet’s use of them as a mirror, the instigator of contemplation and self-reflection, and the focal point of relationships that humans often can’t have with each other, feels unusual and exciting. Animals are less predictable than people, and while these stories don’t stray too far from the beaten path they do have something wild and inscrutable inhabiting them.
I couldn’t hack it this week, and missed being able to post on time about the fourth and last part of The Brothers Karamazov. Read about those stronger than me at Dolce Bellezza‘s. I promise to post about it as soon as I can!