Lydia Millet’s “Love in Infant Monkeys”

Love in Infant Monkeys 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

Harry Harlow's cuter monkey study. Unfortunately, this isn't the study that's discussed in the book.
One of Harry Harlow’s monkey studies. Unfortunately, this isn’t the study that’s discussed in the book.

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.



Stereotypes & Racism in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie SmithZadie Smith’s White Teeth paints a multicultural portrait of 20th century Britain, when racial tensions were still at large. During World War II, Britain was in desperate need of more workers, thus immigration was encouraged. As a need for labor stimulated immigration, an influx of immigrants sparked racism. Despite the inherent exclusivity of the word “minority” it almost becomes a blanket term in which to group all seemingly substandard races. Smith’s cast of characters is a salad bowl of English, Bengalis, and Jamaicans all of whom face very different struggles. The story’s first generation immigrants Clara, Samad, and Alsana are often brutally discriminated against; wheras Archie sees racism by proxy through Clara. Samad and Alsana martyr themselves by refusing to assimilate to a culture that they feel has already rejected them. In result of that same supposition, they also observe reverse racism against the enemy that they feel so prominently victimized by, which tends to be members of the lower class who feel disenfranchised by the presence of immigrants. Perhaps succumbing to their teenage insecurities second-generation immigrants Magid, Millat and Irie conform in an attempt to thrive in a society where they realize their parents are bitterly stunted.

The story opens with the attempted suicide of Alfred Archibald Jones, an Englishmen who is recently divorced. The attempt is foiled, and Archie finds solace in the disruption. His epiphany, that the earth must need him alive, manifests in the optimism that defines his character throughout the novel. As a native born, white male in Britain he faces the least amount of adversity, especially in comparison to the other apparently polarizing characters. Archie’s only tastes of racism occur when his boss, Mr.Hero, revokes Archie’s invitation to company events reasoning that it is unpleasant for people to have to look at his Jamaican, toothless wife while they eat. Benevolent Archie is unaffected by the assertion.

Clara Bowden was raised by her mother, a devout Jehovah’s witness, of Jamaican descent. Like most teenagers, Clara struggled with her identity. The strict life of a Jehova’s witness paled in comparison to the attractiveness of Western pop culture, seemingly free of morals. Clara eventually dismisses most of the values from her upbringing and marries a white Englishmen- much to her mother’s disgust. Clara and Archie decided to repudiate religion and heritage, in an attempt to raise their daughter Irie in a family free of dogma. Clara is happily submissive and forgiving to a fault. She does not object to any type of racial slur made against her. She accepts her Jamaican lineage, but at the same time perceives it as devaluing. She believes that ones race is directly correlated with ones potential, and thus ones future is basically mapped upon inception. When Joyce affronts that Irie’s intelligence is an inconceivable anomaly in relation to her race and social class, Clara assuages that it’s probably due to her white grandfather. Clara disregards the offensiveness of Joyce’s suggestion, and hopelessly accepts her race’s stigma as fact. She’s been indoctrinated with discrimination for so long that she recognizes her minority status as not just her burden, but societies burden. Her only advantage at this point comes from acknowledging her intrinsic downfall, hoping that she can mitigate some of the ignorance that she presumes is naturally within her. Ironically, it is societies ignorance that has caused her to believe this to be true.

Irie Ambrosia Jones talks and acts like any other British teenager, but one must look no further to understand her trials. She’s Jamaican, from her exotic hair right down to her voluptuous rump. Her peers regard her as inferior because of her physicality, and therefore Irie reasons that to increase her innate value she must adhere to Western standards of beauty. Her passivity comes from her mother, yet Irie takes bigoted attacks as constructive criticism rather than irrevocable truths. Irie is hopeful that she can rise socially if only she regresses introspectively, whereas Clara is too brainwashed with discrimination to even fathom equality.

Alsana and Samad exhibit reverse racism in an attempt to hold onto their culture. They’re immersed in a world that doesn’t understand or seem willing to tolerate them; therefore they’ve deemed everyone outside of their own faith as irrelevant and amoral. To assimilate is to destroy their lineage. In spite of their acrimonious portrayal of other racial groups, they find comfort in Archie and Clara. Upon first meeting, however, Alsana prejudged Clara to be trashy and ill mannered, which no doubt went on her “con list” (55). “Black people are often friendly” Alsana generalized, adding this swiftly to the record of races she kept in her head (55). Though the aforementioned comment is complimentary on a superficial level, it also implies that all black people are of the same disposition.

When Alsana learns of her niece Neena’s betrayal she regards her with fury. She very much so carries an “us against them” mentality, and to adopt English culture is treason. When Milliat and Irie began their lessons with the Chaflens, she fears the same fate for the children. She believes they’re being preyed upon and indoctrinated with British culture, “they are like birds with teeth, with sharp little canines–they don’t just steal, they rip apart!” (285).

It’s human nature to reject what we don’t understand. What we don’t understand seems threatening. Samad Miad Iqbal sees no need to immerse himself in British culture, or to regard Britain at all. To him, Bangledash is not only his home but his moral, ethical and spiritual compass. It’s also where he’s comfortable. Britain and all its lavishness have sucked in his children and threaten to destroy the traditions of his lineage. His response is to counterattack. At a school governors meeting, he demands that the school celebrate a Muslim holiday rather than the annual Harvest festival. The suggestion is of course shot down, as the school has its own tradition- only adding to Samad’s martyrdom. He regards this as a final rejection of himself and his family. He believes there is no way for him to be a part of this world.

Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubatsim Iqbal, son of Samad and Alsana, strays from his Bengli and Muslim roots. Magid is more invested in the English education that he’s required to undergo, rather than the Muslim education that his parents encourage. His parents become alarmed by Magid’s rebelliousness, especially when they learn of Magid’s pseudonym, Mark Smith- clearly an attempt to normalize himself with his classmates. Magid knows that his father has come to regard the Harvest festival as everything that is unjust with British culture, but he simply doesn’t care. Magid does not simply wish to conform to English morales, he wants to be English. At times it seems as though Magid feels superior to his family because of his English education, perhaps because at that place and time his education is more relevant. Although Samad thinks that sending Magid to Bengladesh will help Magid understand his heritage, it only makes Magid more iconoclastic. His father romanticizes his own past in Bengladash, perhaps because at least there he was seen as an equal, but Magid sees the city in ruin and distress.

Millat Zulfikar Iqbal has accepted English culture, but one issue he finds is the way women dress. One of Millat’s many love interests, Karina Cain, frequently shows off her stomach. Millat believes that she is “prostituting herself to the male gaze. Particularly white males. Because that’s how it worked between Western men and Western women, wasn’t it? They liked to do it all in public. The more he thought about it, the more it pissed him off. Why couldn’t she cover up? Who was she trying to impress?” (309). Millat views the preceding behavior as Karina not respecting herself. This is where the western and eastern views seem to conflict. In western culture if a girl is dressed provocatively, she’s often met with disdain or jealousy from fellow females and lust from males. Karina asserts that she doesn’t dress for Mallit or anyone else; she dresses for herself (309). In eastern society it tends to insinuate insecurity and a lack of respect for one’s own body and therefore ones family. Karina and those of similar fashion inclinations are harlots who will probably never marry suitable husbands. When Millat addresses his confusion and concern to Shiva, she shares his confusion but with a bitter twist, “Don’t talk to me about white women. It’s got to the point in the West where women are men! I mean, they’ve got the same desires and urges as men-they want it all the fucking time. And they dress like they want everyone to know they want it” (309). In their culture men and women have clearly established roles. Sexual urges are exclusively masculine. Karina’s implication of sexuality is vulgar because it’s coming from a woman, even though she proudly declares that she dresses to please herself, not the desires of man.

If Irie Jones had her way heritage would play a mediocre role in the present and future lives of individuals. Sadly, however, this wish seems to be far fetched. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth certaintly illustrates the struggles of multiculturism. Racism becomes a key trait throughout the novel. While Archie plays the protagonist who is for the most part free of racism, his wife Clara has been so beaten down by the racial slurs made against her that she eventually comes to accept them as fact. Although Samad tells Archie “that land they call ‘India’ goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same of that magnitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.” (85) However Samad’s hypocritical behavior throughout the novel hardly leads him to believe his own mantra is true about other communities and his wife, Alsana follows his lead. The second-generation immigrants of the novel Irie, Magid, and Millat have conformed to the Western values that they have been taught, although Millat protests against the way Western women dress. Smith’s White Teeth ultimately depicts the social realism of the racism that spurs as a result of a multicultural society by venturing through generations of English, Bengali, and Jamaican cultures.

Works Cited
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. New York: Vintage International, 2000. Print.