Book Quote:

“Dogs were the martyrs of the human race.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (DEC 3, 2009)
SPECIAL: MF Author Interview

Humans have varied and convoluted relationships with the animals on this planet. We eat some, wear others, and a few enjoy or endure the precarious position of becoming household pets. Sometimes the relationships people have with their animals make the headlines. Take for example, Dutch artist Katinka Simonse–who strangled and then skinned her own cat before turning it into a handbag. While this act unleashed a storm of controversy and a range of reactions, it also raises many questions. What, for example, is the difference between Katinka’s feline purse and a purse made of cow hide? Is the difference between the death of the pet cat and the death of a cow a moral question or a question of species? Do “owners” have the moral and legal right to kill their pets? Should Simonse be prosecuted for animal cruelty? This case illustrates the complexity of animal rights issues precisely because we humans pick and chose which animals we will love and cherish and which ones we will objectify. There’s a moral dissonance afoot in our relationships with animals, and it’s a dissonance that allows us to coo about how much we love animals while we continue to exploit them through factory farms and animal experimentation.

And these complex moral issues are at the fore in the short story collection, Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet–a short story collection which “treads newly imaginative territory with charismatic tales focused on our fascination with famous people, animals and human-animal relations.” Each of these ten stories examines some aspect of human interaction with animals with some of the stories focusing on real people and fictionalized animal related incidents in their lives. In “Sexing the Pheasant,” for example, we enter the mind of Madonna–a singer notorious for her radical self-inventions. In the story, Madonna newly married to Guy Ritchie and still in the warm glow of her British phase, dons a hunting outfit and totes a rifle around. In “Girl and Giraffe,” George Adamson tells a haunting tale of one afternoon spent in the African bush.

One of the stories, “Thomas Edison and Vasil Golakov” incorporates a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction incident involving Edison and the 1903 electrocution of an elephant. This true story, set to fiction for the purposes of the collection, records the death sentence duly delivered to Topsy:

“Topsy, the elephant in question, was a disgruntled circus and work animal who had suffered the pains of forced labor, captivity, neglect and abuse. She had responded by killing three men, the last of whom fed her a burning cigarette.

Simple shooting would not have been theatrical enough for her owners, Thompson & Dundy of Coney Island’s Luna Park, had decided to make an example of the rogue.”

And this “example” results in the hideous electrocution of Topsy, her “fiery death” duly recorded on film.

In the title story “Love in Infant Monkeys” based on fact, animal researcher and psychologist, Harry Harlow, moves between his laboratory and a faculty party. Harlow, seen by some as a key figure in the rise of the Animal Liberation Movement is depicted as a troubled man, a “functioning alcoholic” whose familial relationships leave a lot to be desired. His lack of connection with his estranged children is reflected in his experiments–extreme isolation experiments using baby monkeys. Harlow’s sadistic callousness is evident here as he records–without emotion–the decline of monkeys in the “pits of despair.” (Harlow named the apparatus himself. For example, he also named the forced mating device, the “rape racks.”)

Of this excellent collection, “Sir Henry” remains my favorite. It’s the story of a New York based professional dog walker, a conscientious and sensitive man who selects wealthy, reliable clients in order to insulate himself from exposure to the harsher aspects of dog ownership:

“When a dog was taken from him—a move, a change of fortune or, in one painful case, a spontaneous gifting—he felt it deeply. His concern for a lost dog, as he thought of them would keep him up for many nights after one of these incidents. When a young Weimaraner was lost to him with not even a chance to say goodbye, he remained angry for weeks. The owner, a teenage heiress often featured in the local tabloids, had given his charge away on a spurt of the moment to a Senegalese dancer she met at a restaurant. He had no doubt that drug use was involved. The dog, a timid, damaged animal of great gentleness and forbearance, was on a plane to Africa by the time he found out about it the next day.”

The dog walker prefers dogs to humans as dogs are clearly our “moral superiors.” To the dog walker, most people are unworthy of owning a dog and they are not as much dog owners as “dog neglecters.” While the dog walker imagines that he has rules for accepting clients that will shield him from the more painful aspects of his job, he is ambushed by an unforeseen incident involving a poodle owned by an elderly violinist.

These excellent stories run the gamut of the relationships between humans and animals–we read of beloved pets, not-so-beloved pets, research animals that exist to fulfill sadistic paradigms, zoo animals, wild animals, animals as accessories, and animals as entertainment. While animals exist to fill whatever needs and whims humans may have, we also see the hypocrisy of humans in their relationships with animals as well as a total lack of accountability in how we treat them. And that lack of accountability ranges from the ownership of our pets to the shadowy world of animal experimentation in which sadism seems indistinguishable from “data collection.” Yet in spite of the subject matter, Millet, in telling these stories manages to remain an observer and a recorder rather than a moralist. This sometimes uncomfortable position is left for the reader.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 12 readers
PUBLISHER: Soft Skull Press (September 22, 2009)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
EXTRAS: ExcerptOur interview with Lydia Millet
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of  How the Dead Dream



For younger readers:



December 3, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Short Stories, y Award Winning Author

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