Animals lurk, slither, flounce, float and barrel through so many of our stories. I’m particularly interested in this because I am the person who notices the cat in the shrubs before I notice the guy washing the car in the driveway. I have always been this way. To me, animals are the most interesting thing in the picture, and it’s no different in a novel.

When we write about animals, I think it is fair to say that the animal almost always represents something human. In a world with boundaries laid by metaphor, this will surprise no-one, and usually we are fine with this—when the story is well-written, at least. But I can’t help feeling like the animals in our stories are often cheated. Because unlike the “kinds” of people written into a world, there’s no way for the animal to counter what they’ve been appropriated to represent, and unlike many of the objects burdened with meaning in the same stories, they do actually have something to lose.

I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to use an animal to represent something else. I do it all of the time—in life and in writing—and some of my favorite stories do as well. I would never want that to go away. It’s just that animals so rarely stand for themselves.

Animal as metaphor

Lady Into Fox is a slim volume I keep returning to and forcing on others, a devastating little novella with a simple premise and story: a young wife turns into a fox, and her husband must navigate life with this change.

There’s little speculation as to why a woman might turn fox. There’s no apparent magic in this world, and though her name is Sylvie there is no sense that this was inevitable, foreshadowed or even possible. We do not dwell on the impossibility of it. We instead live with her husband, Richard Tebrick, as he figures out what it means now that this person he loves is completely different from the person he loved before.

The metaphor is immediately obvious and highly relatable: people change, often beyond recognition, and we are charged with loving them anyway. Sometimes we should hold on and sometimes we need to let go; neither of these options are easy or pleasant.

This story is not about a fox and it is not about loving a fox, not really. Sylvie looks like a fox, smells like a fox, has bad fox habits inappropriate for a Victorian lady, but Sylvie is always Sylvie and a metaphor for her own change. The story is about something else; the fox is just a clever way to tell it.

I write stories like this all of the time, and I love them. But someday I’d like to write story that really is about the fox. I can think of few stories that are actually about the animals they appropriate.*

Animal as Animal/Animal as Person

This brings me to Karen Joy Fowler’s most recent novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

(A warning here: if you haven’t yet read any reviews, hate spoilers and think you might want to read the book, then continue at your own peril.)

Fowler creates a character who is unpredictable, loving, emotional and thoughtful, who we care about and resent a little and think of as a person, and only reveals that this character is a chimpanzee once you’re well into the novel. There’s no anthropomorphism; Fern the chimpanzee earns all of her humanity. She is not the main character, and is absent from most of the action of the novel, but the story is very profoundly about what it means that she is not human, but self-aware and intelligent and a part of a family she trusts, and what it then means when she is abandoned by that family. Fern doesn’t stand for anything except what she is: an animal in a human world, where she kind of but doesn’t quite fit.

This is rare in fiction. The only other place I can remember hearing such a straightforward account of the alien personhood of another animal is Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, a frank, loving and unflinching memoir of life with a particular and demanding German shepherd. Most modern life-with-x-animal memoirs anthropomorphize horribly (and I’m even generally okay with some anthropomorphism, as I’d prefer to err on the side of attributing intelligence and emotion to animals, but this shit is bad) and turn their subjects into family-film fodder. Ackerley does not. Tulip is an intact bitch, unnervingly flirtatious in season, often unmanageable, and fully realized as a complex personality whose sexuality and animality are unavoidable. Marley is a Disney character by comparison; even a lot of the training books I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot) aren’t as frank as this.

By fully investing in Tulip as what she is—not a person, but a dog with personhood—Ackerley actually allows her to be more human than if he’d talked about her on human terms.

Why do we suck at this?

Why do we so infrequently speak of animals in the way that Fowler speaks of Fern and Ackerley writes of his dog?

I imagine part of the challenge is that it’s hard to write people as complex and vivid as Fern and Tulip, and so it’s a rare writer who decides to turn that kind of talent on a character who can’t speak. And part of the challenge is that it’s so foreign. How do we know what a German shepherd bitch in heat thinks of London? You have to know your subject intimately, and care deeply about them, to begin this kind of project.

And, most importantly, the writer has to care about the animal as an animal and not as a companion or an idea of that animal. “But I do care about dolphins/sloths/hoary marmots,” you may think, and I’m sure you do. I do too! People who don’t care about dolphins/sloths/hoary marmots don’t spend as much time as we do looking at pictures of them on the interwebben. It’s easy to care about an animal—in the abstract. But you can’t write from the abstract and get that honest, unflinching and sympathetic perspective. And making a true effort to comprehend an animal’s mind opens some doors you can’t really shut again. The ethical implications of what you see there can be… overwhelming.

That you love someone doesn’t mean you understand them. It’s a writer’s job to understand and empathize more than the average person, but that doesn’t mean we always succeed.

 

*The White Bone is one of them, if I’m not the only person on the planet who’s read that novel. Yet Watership Down, a book that The White Bone is often compared to, doesn’t make the cut. Perhaps Watership’s themes don’t seem feasible: Adams’ rabbits are functioning in a way that’s highly complex and distant from our general ideas of what rabbits are and how they function. However, Gowdy populated the White Bone with African elephants, a species known in the popular mind for their social and emotional sophistication. Because an elephant seems more likely to have complex thoughts and a deep inner life, it also seems more likely that Gowdy’s novel is about elephants and not (secretly) people.
Additionally, the themes in the White Bone seem more connected to its subjects as well. Where in Watership Down sacrifice, work and wisdom lead to a sort of rabbit utopia, Gowdy’s elephants struggle with desperation, loss, and impossible, unfulfilled hopes—things that seem far more likely to play large in the lives of an endangered species struggling to survive.
It’s not that rabbits can’t have political lives. It’s just that it’s more of a stretch for the imagination, and makes me think of the rabbits less as complicated animals and more as rabbit-shaped humans.