Jimmy Carter would have beat Ronald Reagan had it not been for that “killer rabbit”. Apparently the United States didn’t want a leader who was near assassinated by a foot-long swamp rabbit. At least, that’s how Lydia Millet writes it in her latest collection, Love In Infant Monkeys. One of three finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, Millet’s collection of stories crosses the acclaimed celebrity with the muted animal. This collection, although short, is bursting at the seams with questions about human feeling and desire, which all too often seem to surmount the constitution of an animal.
Millet is known for her grim, yet whimsical writing style. Readers will find themselves dismayed at the top of one page and laughing by the bottom. Third-person omniscient narratives take the reader into the stream-of-consciousness of past presidents, esteemed (and unheralded) scientists, actors and actresses, dog walkers of actors and actresses, and pop stars. It’s through each character’s thoughts, some more maniacal than others, that the true stars of the collection take shape – the muted animals. Some sections read like a medical textbook, others read like the diary entry of a mental patient, but most read like a TMZ blast. The latter seems fitting – after all, what is the Hollywood gossip mill if not a zoo vainly portraying cultural icons in their “natural habitats”, but invested only in spectacle, and detached from any real-world context. It’s these erratic shifts in the caliber of the voice, and the species in focus that make for a versatile collection.
The title is borrowed from psychologist, Harry Harlow’s, most esteemed paper published in the Scientific American in 1959. Harlow was concerned with the bond between mother
and child, as well as isolation effects. As Harlow points out, the only way to understand how love works is to remove it and study its absence. Therefore, Harlow would separate infant monkeys from their mothers to study the babies’ reactions, which often proved to be psychologically damaging beyond the point of repair. This section begins in a textbook tone, and although Millet fictionally adapted Harlow’s stream-of-consciousness, his actions are fact. Told from a third-person omniscient narrative, Harlow’s episode is orchestrated around his experiments, and Millet paints a callous portrait: “The only thing I care about is whether a monkey will turn out a property I can publish,” he said. “I don’t have any love for them. I never have. How could you love a monkey?” Harlow is unconcerned with the well-being of his animal subjects and sees them as just that – objects for him to use to test his psychological theories. The prosperity of these living, breathing species pales in comparison to his research. His psychological discoveries are advancements in science, which are seen as a victory for the human race. Yet Millet calls attention to the suffering animals that have contributed to our scientific progression. Based on Millet’s rationale, depravity and progress are inextricably linked. Savagery and depravity also are connected just as stringently. How can one argue that torture, i.e. progress, promotes evolution, when the very nature of said procedure is deleterious to our current understanding of humanity?
Millet tends to use a satirical writing style to mediate the dark content. The novel begins with a particularly witty story, starring a distressed Madonna who has shot, but not fully killed, a pheasant on her English estate. As she searches for the rest of the hunting party to “do the honors” of finishing the bird off, her mind drifts to thoughts of culture, religion, homosexuality, and a few carnal dispositions, one of which pertaining to weaponry: “A gun was basically a huge iron dildo designed by someone French and classy.”
In addition to satire, endearment also ties into this dark flash fiction. Stories of cruelty neutrally mingle with stories of affection. The story titled, “Sir Henry,” features David Hasselhoff’s clear-sighted dog walker whose professionalism is manifested in his love for dogs. Unfortunately his professionalism is limited because he cannot detach himself from a dog the same way Harlow detaches himself from the monkeys he experiments with. He understands that in reality animals, even domesticated animals, are regarded as lesser species. Yet his ideologies seem to scrutinize the pet owner who opts for euthanasia over prolonged treatment. Referring to a client who is fast approaching death, the dog walker thinks to himself: “A dog in his state would have been euthanized long ago.” His compassion for the dogs he walks ranks higher than the large fee he is paid for doing so. He has no patience for irresponsibility when it comes to the care of dogs; he screens all potential cliental to ensure that once he begins walking a dog, he will do so until the dog passes away. His mantra is that the decision to invest in a dog is a permanent commitment; the dog must remain in the owner’s possession until one of them passes away.
Several stories suggest that nature works at a higher order, embodying connections that go far beyond human understanding. The chapter titled “Girl and Giraffe” features the late George Adamson and his lioness, Girl. Adamson tells a retrospective story about a peculiar hunting experience. Adamson and Girl were walking through the forest in Meru, Tanzania when they came across a herd of giraffes. Fearing for their lives, the herd scattered. But one foal foolishly stayed put. Girl cornered the foal, but she didn’t pounce. The animals stood frozen, staring at each other for only a moment. The giraffe went back to chomping on branches while Girl patiently waited. When the giraffe finished eating, he lay down at the feet of the lioness and accepted his role as prey. Adamson concludes that an agreement between the Girl and the Giraffe had been established during their drawn out stare. Girl reprieved the giraffe, granting it a free afternoon where all concern about its past or future were unimportant; the giraffe would be dead by nightfall so thinking about anything other than the present would be fruitless.
Although fictional, this novel has a realistic backbone that runs deeper than the fact that each story was in part based on some factual underpinning. An animal is always at the mercy of the human. Even animals that surpass humans in size and strength, like elephants, find themselves in captivity where they are submissive to the human and may undergo the worst of treatments from zoo captors or circus folk. Any attempt to fight back will earn them an express trip to their death. In one story, the execution of an elephant is mediated with the following explanation: “The execution of animals, an odd extension of a medieval practice, assumes the animal is a moral agent, accountable to the law and therefore punishable in a formal and public context. It is noteworthy that the elephant was not being euthanized or exterminated, as vermin would, but penalized for her sins against God and man by execution qua execution.”
A YouTube search for “Topsy the Elephant” will reveal a twenty-three second video of a circus elephant’s electric execution – a snuff film. Thomas Edison filmed the execution in order demonstrate the dangers of an alternating current system. Edison states that: “Nonviolence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.” Yet he films the electrocution of an elephant to theoretically promote progress.
This collection excavates the crooked private lives of the celebrities, politics, and scientists. Although fictional, the bulk of this novel is composed of very real perspectives; the road to notoriety is a popularity contest, to say the least, and often the true actions and feelings of notorious figures are not exactly crowd-pleasers. The wit of the narrative and the context of the stories occasionally focalize on the hypocrisy of society as a whole.
Although episodic, detaching the stories from each other defeats the magnitude of the collection. It is the amalgamation of the stories that fully illustrate the submissiveness of the animal and moreover, the hypocrisy and disregard for the feelings of the voiceless animal. “Love In Infant Monkeys” is a thought-provoking novel that provides insight into human feeling, and questions the role that all species play in the environment. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a good sense of humor, and can appreciate the inclusion of written factual and fictional violence that interprets the role that the voiceless animal plays in the human-controlled world.