The universe of Lydia Millet’s “Love in Infant Monkeys” is comprised of two kinds of people: those who associate themselves with animals and extend all the warmth and compassion they can muster towards them, and those who inflict unimaginable horrors on the animals in order to assert dominance of mind and body. This collection of ten short stories feature a myriad of animals and birds through whom human beings can assess their qualities and worth. Reminiscent of a documentary “Earthlings” which narrated human’s harsh treatment of animals (in the context of food and entertainment), these short stories leave the reader with enough material to ponder upon.
The illustrations at beginning of each chapter, as well as stylistic choices of narration are reminiscent of Vonnegut. Lydia Millet presents a critique of contemporary culture where celebrities are infused deep into our social fabric. Whilst we pay homage to these incorporeal beings, we forget out duty towards animals and nature and what humility towards creatures other than ourselves can bring about.
Sexing the Pheasant ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
This short story is told from first person perspective of Madonna, the singer, who is out hunting birds. Her thoughts leap from one topic to another, fame, gender, religion, nations, ideals and relationships. The smug self-centredness of her thought pattern is nauseating which likens herself to a deity all the while a pheasant sputters to death at her feet. Human arrogance runs parallel to lack of empathy for other creatures.
“The fans worshipped you because they needed something—well, what were you supposed to do? Well, prostrate yourself before the Infinite”
“She was high art and low commodity, and ironic about how perfectly the two fit”
“So she was the American ideal, which was the self-made person, and the English ideal too, which was snotty aristocrats”
“Once they ruled the world, now all they had was a better accent”
“They didn’t stand for that Thomas Paine bullshit here, all men were created equal, etc. What a crock. One drive through Alabama was all you needed to take the bloom off that rose”
Girl and Giraffe ★★★★☆ (4/5)
This recounts a story of George Adamson, a wildlife conservationist, who raised two lions, calling them Girl and Boy. He witnesses a deep understanding of animal sympathy when a baby giraffe is about to be preyed upon by the lioness Girl.
“A lion’s face is extraordinary in its capacity for expression”
Sir Henry ★★★★☆ (4/5)
This is one of my favourite stories about a dog-walker and his poignant relationship with our four-legged friends. It is a story about loneliness and attachment, the relationship dogs have with their owners and the relationship owners have amongst themselves (as humans). A dog’s qualities can never falter, their innocence epitomises all that is good about nature and the universe and is not reflective of however famous their owners are.
Sir Henry is a dachschund belonging to David Hasselhoff. Whilst the famous people are least bothered about their pets, using them only to show off in public places, the dog-walker considers the pets as individuals, not associating them with their owners. He likens the value of humanity which is amiss in humans themselves, to the values shown by dogs.
“Did they serve him? No, and he would not have it so. They served decorum, the order of things”
“Sometimes a dog owned by one of these irresponsible persons had powerful appeal—grace, sensitivity, an air of loneliness. But the risk was too great. He made himself walk away from these dogs.”
“Sometimes he wished he could gather all the dogs he loved most and walk off the end of the world with them.”
“Dogs he loved most and walk off the end of the world with them.”
Thomas Edison and Vasil Golakov ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Thomas Edison wants to flaunt the power of his latest invention and uses an elephant as a prop, resulting in her death. Edison is haunted by the elephant’s photograph and whenever alone, he indulges in a conversation with her, trying to either apologise for his callousness or justifying human cruelty as a mere means of survival.
“With every breath each of us on this earth inhales a molecule from Caesar’s final respiration. And likewise a molecule from Brutus’s breath, as the traitor raised a hand to stab his noble emperor. Does that make us Caesar? Does it make us Brutus?”
Tesla and Wife ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
The genius Tesla develops strong affinity with pigeons later in his life, considering one of them to be his wife. He showers limitless affection to the birds and in the process of doing so, develops a warm relationship with one of his maids who is a victim of domestic abuse. The story is from the perspective of another maid who knew both of them together and apart.
“Dead and alive were the same thing, she said. Dead and alive, they were exactly the same”
Love in Infant Monkeys ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Harry Harlow, the psychologist, wants to prove the qualitative function of love and uses monkeys for experimentation to prove his theories. As a person, he is distant from his family and uses inebriation to keep feelings of sympathy, care and love at bay. The monkeys are put through torturous practices to prove a scientific point, but at the cost of Harry’s mental and physical health of which he is in denial of.
Chomsky, Rodents ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
A husband happens to meet Noam Chomsky, notable social critic and political philosopher, at a town dump where the latter is trying to give away a gerbilarium. The ensuing conversation between them and another woman deals with motherhood and confining gender roles.
Jimmy Carter’s Rabbit ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
President of the free world Jimmy Carter visits an old friend who now practices psychotherapy. Each misunderstands the purpose of this untimely visit, shifting reasons and guilt of an old incident on one another. Emasculation and misunderstanding between two men on the verge of reconciling their relationship provides for tension of the story.
“I have an action practice: Clients know that with me the past is a springboard, not a quagmire.”
“Carter stared at me with his mouth agape. In that moment, the ex-free-world leader looked like an village idiot”
The Lady and the Dragon ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Sharon Stone’s husband is bitten on the toe by a komodo dragon. The reptile is transferred to a different zoo and ends up being brought by an eccentric Indonesian millionaire. The millionaire uses the dragon to lure the actress into a relationship with him.
“In just a few years America would be a minor country, with nothing left of its brief foray into world domination but mountains of plastic and staggering debt”
Walking Bird ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
This is the only story without a celebrity character. A family visits the zoo and notices animals disappearing. Perhaps this story signifies the imminent threat of mass extinction and what future families will be deprived of.
Animals serve as a foil to human comprehension of their immediate surroundings. At times a dying bird provides a plane for self-exploration, a dead elephant can arouse maddening guilt, whilst at other times, a bird can help humans understand the surreal and natural. In an environment of severe competition for material gains, these voice-less beings which we consider less intelligent can inculcate morals which we may have forgotten long ago. Our pitiless natures have stifled our ability to reason and animals can help reach our natural balance.
This collection works as a parable of human hubris in its natural context. Lydia Millet’s exploration of the animal and human world united in form, mixed with fictive and non-fiction elements, provide us with an overall edifying read.