Wild Kingdom

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“Lydia Millet is one of the loosest writers I know. Her work takes rare risks with subject matter and form, and does so with a sense of jazzy improvisation.”

“It’s great to be an animal,” says a character in Lydia Millet’s new story collection, Love in Infant Monkeys. “It’s what the core of life is.”

Of course, neither of these statements is true. Sometimes it’s flat-out terrible to be an animal. And more often than not we are projecting onto animals our own very human ideas about life, its core and meaning. The animals may beg to differ, but they can’t tell us so. The endless complications that result from this—and our continuing insistence on defining ourselves, correctly or incorrectly, in relation to animals—are the subject of these short, startling, terrifically inventive stories.

Throughout Millet’s collection, the lives of animals intersect with the lives of celebrities, with consequences that are satirical, sorrowful, and sometimes both at the same time. “Celebrity” is broadly defined; the cast of characters ranges from pop culture denizens like Madonna and David Hasselhoff to intellectual luminaries like Thomas Edison and Noam Chomsky.

Some of the stories read like straight parody. In the opening piece, “Sexing the Pheasant,” Madonna, in the midst of a hunting expedition, voices a self-important, Kabbalah-infused interior monologue that skates from the usage of British slang to vapid musings on life and death. It’s funny in the manner of a Saturday Night Live skit. Similarly, in “Chomsky, Gerbils,” the humor derives from the fish-out-of-water situation of placing Chomsky at a town dump with his granddaughter. An ensuing argument raises issues about animality and identity, with the philosophical debate taking over the narrative.

The other stories are funny too, but many manage to be even more than that—beautiful, serious, breathtakingly sad. Millet is one of the loosest writers I know, by which I mean that her work takes rare risks with subject matter and form, and does so with a sense of jazzy improvisation. Many stories have unusual narrative structures and mechanisms—they unfold like short jokes, pop up like jacks-in-boxes, or chain scenes together like Slinkies. That these last two comparisons are to toys is no coincidence—all these stories are animated by a playful, unconfined energy that makes them intensely pleasurable to read.

One of the best, “Girl and Giraffe,” centers on George Adamson, the wildlife conservationist best known for Born Free, the book (and film) about his and his wife’s work rearing orphan lion clubs and releasing them into the wild in Kenya. Millet’s version finds Adamson, now an old man in his cups, telling stories of cubs he has raised to a visiting German. In an interaction between one of the lions and a giraffe, Adamson comes to the limits of his own knowledge, even of his own existence. “This was in Kenya in the late nineteen-eighties,” Millet writes at the end of the story,

“decades after the Mau Mau rebellion brought the deaths of two hundred whites and twenty thousand blacks. A new homespun corruption had replaced the old foreign repression; fewer and fewer lions roamed the grasslands of East Africa, and the British were long gone.”

This ending made my head spin, in a good way. I loved how the lens of the story switches focus, at the last minute, to a different place. Adamson’s memories, his love for the animals and misapprehension of them, are placed in context; the brutality of animals and the brutality of humans are layered together.

Another of my favorites is “The Lady and the Dragon,” in which a Sharon Stone impersonator is summoned to a wealthy island in Indonesia by an eccentric millionaire who offers her the gift of the Komodo Dragon who bit her husband’s toe. The story starts out as satire but gets more serious—and more lovely—as it goes along. In the end, the impersonator has grown to love the dragon, its humble and pugnacious dignity. This was the demeanor, she decides, “that she would seek out in boyfriends and later a husband.” That kind of affinity, the inevitable emotional transference in our relationship to animals—and the animals’ occasional defiance and insistence on keeping their own reference points—runs through Love in Infant Monkeys, forging associations between scientists and entertainers, pet owners and wildlife enthusiasts.

The way we look at celebrities and the way we look at animals are similar in that both are about desire, and Millet casts both as figures in our collective imagination, subject to our whims and our scrutiny. Of course, only celebrities have chosen that scrutiny. Animals have no such choice, and in some of Millet’s saddest stories, this lack of agency is tragically dramatized—dogs are neglected by their owners, infant monkeys are subjected to cruel experiments, an elephant is put to death. Celebrities offer a heightened or debased mirror-image of ourselves, and in Millet’s world, animals experience a kind of celebrity, too. What comes across in these stories is our desperate need for them—to understand them, to house and capture them, to evade them. To see ourselves in them and, in turn, to feel ourselves seen.

Alix Ohlin’s most recent novel is Dual Citizens. She lives in Vancouver and chairs the Creative Writing Program at UBC. She is on Twitter @alixohlin. More from this author →