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Anthropomorphism edges out dysfunction in the final chapter of the millennium.

By James DiGiovanna

JANUARY 26, 1998:  SOMETIME AFTER THE appearance of Disney's The Lion King, a shift of trends occurred in literary fiction. In the early nineties, critics' lists were full of books about dysfunctional families. Perhaps in the wake of the missing child/abused child/recovered memory movement, which brought Freud to new lows by blaming parents not only for everything, but also for everything else, books about unpleasant childhoods began to sprout like welts on the back of an abused infant. Dorothy Allison, Kathryn Harrison, Rick Moody and countless others recounted barely disguised stories of their fucked-up families, as though verisimilitude and drama were the same as art and writing.

In the last year, however, a new trend has come scratching at the door: books featuring talking animals. With a freedom from the slavish devotion to naturalism, one would hope that contemporary authors could recapture some of the daring of the writers of the sixties, when American literature had its last golden age with figures such as Gass, Barth and Barthelme. But it seems unlikely that this nouvelle vague will produce another Ishmael Reed or Thomas Pynchon (who appears to have returned and murdered the evil anti-Pynchon who wrote Vineland). Instead of playing with the form of the novel in pursuing their anti-realist ends, Will Self, Scott Bradfield, Marie Darrieussecq and Kirsten Bakis have all, in the last year, offered us otherwise ordinary stories wherein the protagonists are, for differing reasons, intelligent animals.

Of the four, only Bradfield's book is unreadable. This is unfortunate, as his previous effort, History of Luminous Motion, though it bowed to the trend of fucked-up-childhood stories, was sharply original and compellingly odd, eschewing realism by having the hyper-intelligent 8-year-old protagonist cause his families troubles by being a pragmatic and guiltless murderer. Kind of a bad seed told well, Luminous Motion deserved more attention than it got. His follow-up, Animal Planet, lacks the hypnotic prose that kept the first story flowing. Instead, a boring naturalism pervades an otherwise unnatural tale of a revolt at a zoo. No one I know, many of whom were fans of his previous work, was able to finish it.

Bakis' Lives of the Monster Dogs has some promising moments, but overall succumbs to a cuteness in the voice of its fresh-faced young narrator, who's brought into the circle of a group of super-intelligent talking dogs who move to New York and set up a private community on the lower east side.

Where the novel works is in its retelling of the dogs' early history as subjects in a bizarre experiment by an insane German scientist. In these sections, Bakis is forced to take on the voice of Ludwig Von Sacher, a monster dog who is the official record-keeper for their community. Raised in an isolated patch of Canadian wilderness, where their human masters had maintained a closed community since the turn of the century, the dogs have a delightfully over-dramatic late nineteenth century style. This runs from their clothing through their literature, and when it's the dogs turn to write, the alienness of their world comes through without sacrificing reader involvement; their story, about a struggle for freedom, is compelling in spite of their non-human form.

Self's book, Great Apes, has received the most critical acclaim, though it falls far from greatness. Apes begins with the Kierkegaardian trope of having its fictional author introduce the subject. In this case, however, the author is a chimpanzee, living in a world where chimps, and not humans, became the dominant, language wielding, civilization-building species.

The chimp-author explains that he'll tell the tale of an artist who is a human, living in a human-centered world. After a few chapters of fairly standard narrative, punctuated with excessive and not entirely pointed language-play, the human, Simon Dykes (for "simian," perhaps?) awakes to find himself in the world of monkeys. From then on it's an extended bar-joke, with monkey civilization and history exactly mirroring human, except where comic punch is required. Estrus, for example, becomes a dominant force, and rushing to ejaculation more manly than holding off. Sign language takes the place of spoken words, with "vocalizations" like hHuuGruu used for emphasis. Chimp forms of family life, with a dominant alpha-male and an extended, interbreeding mating group, take the place of the monogamous human family.

The scenes of chimps presenting their anuses in submission, grooming shit out of each other's fur while discussing psychiatry, and copulating on public transportation are either funny or tiresome, depending on your mood; but as Dykes' artistic fascination with the bestial nature of embodied existence is given more and more metaphoric weight, the tale becomes a bit obvious, though still amusing in spite of its excesses.

Perhaps the most critically reviled of these talking animal books has been Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation, by Marie Darrieussecq. Well-received in her native France, Darrieussecq has been taken to task in the U.S. for the extreme obviousness of her story, in which a greedy, lustful and shallow young woman transforms into a pig. You figure out the symbolism. Actually, though, it's an amusing and short read, unintentionally comic and never boring. Perhaps it could acquire the literary status that the film Showgirls now enjoys.

In the next month, Bernard Weber's Empire of the Ants will be published in the U.S. Advance notice on this book has been strong, and it has the charm of not featuring any mammals. This is only one sign that talking animals may soon give way to talking bugs...more telling, and perhaps more ominous, is the recent announcement by the Walt Disney Corporation that their next animated feature will be titled A Bug's Life.


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