Love in Infant Monkeys, Lydia Millet (Soft Skull Press) $13.95
With Love in Infant Monkeys, Lydia Millet offers a fresh collection of 10 short stories that each focus on relationships between animals and celebrities. While each story has some basic root in truth, Millet takes plenty of liberties that keep the stories engaging, often blurring the line between fact and fiction. Although animals certainly play crucial roles in each story, Millet appears more concerned with what their interactions with people reveal about human behavior and psychology.
Love in Infant Monkeys collects a broad range of bizarre characters, odd circumstances, and varying human emotions: from a disheartened, wealthy dog walker upset at the care of David Hasselhoff’s dachshund Sir Henry to a psychologist reminiscing with Jimmy Carter about the president’s run in with a killer swamp rabbit to Nikoli Tesla’s deep friendships with pigeons to an unsettled Noam Chomsky trying to find a suitable owner for his grandaughter’s gerbil cage.
Some stories in Millet’s collection lampoon celebrity culture and criticizing society’s frequent worship of the famous. In “Sexing the Pheasant” for instance, Madonna’s self-absorbed thoughts are revealed to the reader through an inner monologue as she stares at a dying pheasant she shot in the English countryside. As she continually reminds herself to use British terms—“When it came to pheasants, they called them hens and roosters. (Good work, self.)”—we glimpse the highest level of pretentiousness: “Not your fault if your reflection reminded you of all that was sacred, all that was divine and holy.” Madonna’s musings ring true, though uncomfortable: “The fans worshiped you because they needed something—well, what were you supposed to do? Well, prostrate yourself before the Infinite. Clearly.”
Other stories offer beautiful glimpses into love, nurture, guilt, and obsession. “Thomas Edison and Vasil Golakov” recounts Edison’s compulsive habit of watching film footage of an execution he helped perform on an elephant named Topsey. While watching and rewatching the killing, Edison “appears to have conducted philosophical debates with the moving image, defending a rational humanism for which the roasting elephant berated him.” Edison loudly tells the elephant “I am Man. Man has his own destiny!… Impractical, I’m afraid. Exhumation and shipping alone… I have no time for messing about your bones, my stubborn pachyderm… Commonality?” In the title story Millet questions the differences that separate humans from animals. Because of Millet’s talent at writing poignant prose, I couldn’t help but feel sad and frightened for the baby monkeys she describes who, in Harry Harlow’s now famous experiments, are deprived of all nurture and attention. Describing one of the baby monkeys, Millet writes, “Not a spark animated the creature. Finally given up. Now broken. Her spindly arms hung loose from the sockets, doing nothing. Hunched little figure, staring. Nothing there. It had gone.”
Throughout the collection Millet displays a clear talent for crafting readable stories that manage both to entertain and provoke thought about an array of philosophical questions. By deploying a variety of literary styles and tones, each story also manages its own pace, and that keeps the collection from becoming monotonous. Lydia Millet takes an unusual premise for a short story collection, the intersections between celebrities and animals, and pulls off a deeply engaging and entertaining read.
Ted English studies English, from the plains of Oklahoma to the hills of Italy.