It is a lovely irony that even a cursory glance at the history of literature illuminates how profoundly seductive, even essential, animality has been in this attempt to clarify the human condition. From Aesop’s menagerie of moralized critters to Thomas Mann’s enchanting Bashan, from the Bible’s slithering Satan to Kafka’s paranoiac burrower, animism has so permeated the literary imagination as to lose something of its original strangeness. We cast our voices and troubles onto frogs and fish and ferrets without a second thought. We picture them in complicated, unraveling relationships; they are harried by work and fate and mortality. They become us so easily as to be somewhat unnerving—yet they remain forever apart, something once removed. And therein, perhaps, we may locate the timeless narrative utility of the animal: possessed of a vitality pleasingly reminiscent of our own yet sufficiently alien to save us from something like self-incrimination. These delightful, frightening, ambiguous creatures become ideal role players for the grand, if dangerous, literary experiment of self-discovery: morally malleable stand-ins from whom we might derive, at a safe distance, instruction, wisdom, laughter, and loathing.
At first glance, Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals seems to slide easily into this literary tradition of creaturely appropriation. Her debut, the well-received Blood Kin, made use of three narrators—a chef, a barber, and an artist—to tell the story of a coup in which an aging autocrat is overthrown. That none of the major characters possessed a proper name leant the work the gravity of a parable, an allegorical agency that served to enrich Dovey’s exploration of power’s capacity to corrupt. This sophomore effort, a collection of ten tales told by the souls of dead animals, finds Dovey again writing in a semi-fabulist mode, though her thematic concerns—nothing less than what it means to be human—have expanded considerably. Each of the animals, having been caught up in a historical human conflict, tells the story of its own death. These vignettes are by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, and Dovey’s exceptional pacing ensures her readers remain engaged and enchanted throughout. No Disneyfied cautionary tales, however, are to be found herein. Dovey eschews sentimentality and easy moralizing, lending a sophistication to the proceedings that feels like a respect for the strangeness, and the ultimate unknowability, of wild consciousness. The eponymous animals are neither naïvely comic, nor possessed of the icy perfection and opacity of mythic beasts; rather, in their psychological richness and complexity of emotion they remind us nothing so much as ourselves—only sharper, wiser, somehow more than human. This is not to say that Dovey doesn’t find fertile territory within the abstraction of animality; indeed, she creates, and makes wonderful use of, an emotional distance through which human pain is refracted and made new. But there is never any bowing or scraping, no easy laughs or vulgar caricatures. Dovey’s artistry ensures that every revelation feels utterly earned.
That artistry is perhaps best displayed within Animal’s ingenious narrative scaffolding, which reads as both a love letter to classic literature and a bold reimagining of familiar formal elements. In a series of remarkable structural gambits, Dovey proves she is both a deeply engaged reader as well as something of a literary chameleon, as many chapters recall—and reinvigorate—the great works of the past. Take, for instance, the story of Sel the mussel, in which a mollusk chases “the gorgeous chance to be tested” across the karmic wastes of the ocean—“an invisible circuit of madman energy”—in prose that perfectly mimics the transcendental homelessness of Kerouac at his most ecstatic. Or the chapter on Prague’s Red Peter, a sophisticated chimpanzee who has learned to speak and dress immaculately by way of a scientifically indoctrinated high culture; Kafka himself appears as a character, an intensity lurking at the story’s edges, and both his “A Report to an Academy” and “A Hunger Artist” are referenced deftly throughout: “Hem yourself in again,” Red Peter advises his chimpanzee paramour-in-training, “deny yourself whatever you desire, until the pleasure comes from the denial itself, not the consummation of desire.” These intertextual allusions create a fecund, multilayered storytelling in which meaning reverberates and echoes across not only the sequential stories, but also the rich legacy of modernist literature itself.
The animals themselves prove uniquely qualified—and only too happy—to philosophize on humanity and animality alike in perceptive and elegantly aphoristic asides. Plautus, a tortoise owned by, among others, Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, and George Orwell, eventually joins the fledgling Soviet space program and realizes, as he goes willingly into a hopeless round-the-moon mission:
I’d spent my life in the company of writers who’d found their way to a perfect solitude: a hermit, a suicide, a vagabond, a lone avant-gardee; writers who had recognized in me a matching contradictory desire never to be let go of, always to be let alone. After the first blast of creation, we were all left homeless, every creature on earth.
Elsewhere, a militarized dolphin dictates a posthumous letter to her literary idol, Sylvia Plath. She is exasperated by Ted Hughes’s Jungian obsession with locating the primal animal within the human. “It was all a license to behave badly,” she declares, building toward a stinging indictment of masculinity:
. . . human women need no reminder that they’re animals. So why do your men keep shouting from the rooftops as if they’ve discovered how to transform base metals into gold? Imagine a male dolphin who has to keep having epiphanies to remember he’s an animal! But we’re special, your men declare, we’re a special-case animal, and part of what makes us special is that we ask the very question, Am I human or animal?
In a prefatory remark before the story of a fairy-telling bear in war-torn Serbia, Dovey quotes Boria Sax: “What does it mean to be human? Perhaps only the animals can know.” This, I think, is what undergirds Dovey’s collection: a portraiture of otherness through which we refract and see ourselves. That these portraits are composed by way of a kind of negative space—that which we can’t easily see, the back of the soul—is as much a testament to Dovey’s emotional acumen as it is her generous narrative gifts. She effortlessly marshals a range of comic tonal registers, from low bawdiness—“It doesn’t matter if a woman’s cracked, they say, s’long as the crack is in the right place,” says the drifter-poet Henry Lawson— to mordant wit, and though she is often laugh-out-loud funny, Dovey never makes her jokes at the expense of the beasts’ animality; rather, we are offered to share the laughter of peers: “Go forth, fish and fuck yourselves stupid, and you can thank me afterwards. We’re animals, after all!” says the dolphin, skewering the posturing of the poet-as-shaman. In frequently striking moments of insight, she proves just as capable a psychologist as she is a humorist: “A wise friend once told me that kindness, like cruelty, can be an expression of domination,” a ghost-pig tells an exiled dog. It is difficult to remain unmoved by the consistent grace and generosity of this wisdom. Dovey’s rich and wide ranging prose, from the painfully specific (“marriage would force her to metamorphose so that she was half-duck, half-otter, always partly a stranger to herself”) to the poetically universal (“It seems to be the curse of all earth’s creatures, that we cannot help but spread ourselves around, always making a mess, carrying life with us, leaving it behind”) suggests something of the cosmic beauty and fullness of the zodiac emblazoned across each chapter’s beginning.
One of the book’s two epigraphs comes from J.M. Coetzee (a fitting choice given his essayistic and species-leaping novella The Lives of Animals):
Each creature is key to all other creatures. A dog sitting in a patch of sun licking itself, says he, is at one moment a dog and at the next a vessel of revelation.
Dovey’s animals, each just such “a vessel of revelation,” both bridge and extend the rich tradition of animalistic literature, indeed marking it indelibly with stories that continue to reverberate long after the final tale (an abandoned parrot in bombed-out Lebanon) concludes. The plight of the animal can perhaps best be contextualized as an ambiguity within the lives of humans: Family or food? Partner or resource? Friend or nuisance? “Why do you sometimes treat other people as humans and sometimes as animals?” asks the Plath-loving dolphin. “And why do you sometimes treat creatures as animals and sometimes as humans?” The lasting nobility of Dovey’s exquisitely drawn creatures is that they lead us toward an empathy in which animals—the wild, the domestic, and the human alike—are renewed and ennobled. “Ignore the animals,” counsels one of the humans, and the stark contrast of his crudity sticks in our craw. “They’re our only and most loyal spectators.” Dovey’s luminous collection advises just the opposite: that a special kind of attention be paid to these enigmatic lives, these dream-haunters, these creatures drawn in the stars. We have, she seems to say, so very much to learn.
Dustin Illingworth is is a critic, essayist, and fiction writer based in southern California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Times Literary Supplement, Publishers Weekly, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The LA Review of Books, and various other venues. He is the Managing Editor of The Scofield and Contributing Editor at 3:AM Magazine.