Thursday, April 28, 2011

"How the Dead Dream" (Lydia Millet Review/interview Part Two)

How the Dead Dream

How the Dead Dream, Lydia Millet's most recent novel, is described as being "the first book of a trilogy dealing with extinction."  It is a very accomplished book, full of a sense of pity and awe that at moments almost overwhelmed me.  Ms. Millet was kind enough to answer some questions for our blog, and I asked her about taking on a topic of such size and complexity:

The series isn’t only about extinction, but it circles the idea. The second and third books come out this fall and next — they’re called Ghost Lights and Magnificence — and they continue with the same people from How the Dead Dream, along the same chronology, but have different protagonists. In Ghost Lights, the one coming out soonest, the connection with extinction is fairly abstract; this is mainly a story about a devoted father who discovers his wife’s infidelity and takes off into the jungle to get away from her. In Magnificence the connection comes into clear focus again: that same wife, who was unfaithful, inherits an old mansion full of taxidermy mounts.

I also asked her about her background, and what it was that brought her to such an unusual theme:

I’ve been obsessed with animals always, and with extinction for at least the past twenty years since I became aware of the extinction crisis. Since roughly 1996 I’ve worked in endangered species advocacy, in one way or another, after doing a graduate degree in environmental policy and economics. So it was inevitable I would write about these matters. It took me a while to get there because the task is a hard one and delicate to negotiate.

How the Dead Dream is the story of T., a young man who grows up with an almost fetishistic attachment to money and becomes a successful real estate developer.  He is expert at the art of making himself useful to those around him, and yet he lives at some remove from all of them, not really connecting.  T. seems unaware of his isolation, however, until one night on the way to Las Vegas he runs over a coyote on the freeway.  He stops to see what he has hit, and unwittingly opens himself to an experience that will change his life.

He willed himself not look at her legs, to try and ignore what was back there bleeding ... He looked only at her face and her side to see if she was still breathing.  But despite the fact that he was not looking, as he sat beside her, he imagined the shock from the ruined legs coursing through her body, what must be the blind surge of pain as the end closed in ... She was dying in the smells of asphalt, exhaust, and gasoline, no doubt also the smell of her own blood, and him, and other smells he could not know himself.

The fullness, the terrible sympathy!

Had he felt this before, he wondered?  Maybe when he was a boy?  Animals died by the road and you saw them all the time, everyone did.  You saw them lying there, so obvious in their deadness, sad lumps of dirty meat; you saw their limp furry masses thrown up like flowers along the yellow stripes, the tumbly asphalt edges.  You saw the red insides all exposed.  You though: that is the difference between them and me.  My insides are firmly contained.

Reading that passage, I couldn't help but remember a similar point of realization in my own life.  A few years ago I started volunteering at a wildlife rehab center and one of the animals I worked with most often was the opossum.  I often had to handle and clean up after the older opossum, and I also learned to tube feed the tiny babies (opossum are marsupials, so they don't have the same kind of nursing instincts that other mammals have -- you can feed baby squirrels, for instance, with a syringe which they will eagerly suck on, but opossum have to be tube fed).  In our orientation, the trainer mentioned that mother opossum that are hit by cars, often have babies still alive in their pouches, and that it's important to check the pouches, because the babies can be save.  A few weeks later, I passed an opossum who had died in the middle of the road, and with the lesson still fresh in my mind I pulled over to the side, watched for traffic, and ran out to check the body.  It turned out to be a male, but getting so close to the dead opossum, a member of a species I had been coming to know and feel some affection for, suddenly made me think about all the animals we see dead in the city, which we so easily pass by -- each in its own sense an individual, with an individual life that matters to it.
T., in Millet's novel, has a similar experience:

And were I to lie on the side of the road dying, it would be nothing like that.  No one would drive around me:  the cars would stop, tens upon hundreds of them; there would be lines of stopped traffic for miles as they removed my body, flashing their red and blue lights of crisis and competence. 
Presently he realized that her flank had ceased to rise and fall ... Where was the ambulance?  No: he was all she had.  All her lights, her rescue workers.

It was just a coyote.  No one would fault him for leaving.

And yet he felt confused.

"Good girl," he whispered.

I asked Lydia Millet about her own relationship with animals.  Did she have many pets growing up?  What did she think were the most important lessons she'd learned from relationships with animals.  

Growing up, I had cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, mice and one large rabbit. What I’ve chiefly learned from my pets: There’s a language barrier between us. My pug dog is indifferent to my remarks about the gold standard and medical marijuana. I’m willing to live with that, but what about when I talk to her about her food issues? Bad breath? There I wish we could communicate better. Frankly the thing worries me.

Indeed, this theme of otherness -- of the wall of non-communication that separates us from animals, is a theme that runs through Millet's work.  In How the Dead Dream and even more explicitly in the stories in Love in Infant Monkeys (her 2009 story collection which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) there is always a certain opaqueness to the animals -- its hard even to call them characters -- but also a kind of realism which is rare in fiction.  It seems that in most fiction animals are either part of the setting, just there as backdrop like the family pet on a sit-com, or they are used metaphorically and allegorically (as for example in much magic realism, or The Life of Pi by Yann Martel).  I never get that impression from  Millet's animals.  Even when they are already dead, as the Pheasant shot by Madonna just before the beginning of the story "Sexing the Pheasant", they have a sense of integrity and independence -- that is, they are there in their own right, and whatever it is that humans are trying to make of them never quite encompasses them -- they are unknowable, but also not co-opted.  

About why animals have become so important in her fiction -- and what about our relationship to them most captures here imagination, Millet says:

Partly the unknowability of animals’ interior experience, partly a sense of the deep privilege of still living in a world with that unknown difference all around us, that abundance of being. I fear a future in which the world is so impoverished of wild creatures that all that remains is a truncated version of us — us and our toys and our machines, the things that we’ve made and nothing else. That hovers over me as a likely and terrible prospect.

That fear also reverberates in her work.  I asked her What she thinks about the possibility of introducing non-human points of view into fiction?  Can we get outside our own projections well enough to really try to imagine their worlds?  Is the problem or representing animals in fiction more difficult than the perennial issues of human writers representing different races, nationalities, genders?  

Far more difficult. There have been some noble literary tries at this, to write from the supposed POV of an animal, and the effort shows — Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, for instance, almost succeeded in crafting a viable elephant POV, it had some moments of inspiration and certainly there was insight there (Gowdy’s such a talented writer), but also in some particular aesthetic ways it cringingly failed, as has, so far, every such attempt. I think the trouble is twofold: One, we don’t know animal language and so we can’t in most cases even presume to elaborate the nature of their subjectivity. Two, exactly what is fascinating about nonhuman animals is their not-us-ness in its infinite variety. So you can make them into us, when you write about them — as in many children’s stories, a convention I love. Or you can try in literature to evoke them as narrators, but in most cases that second, loftier project will fail. It will fail precisely because it promises the impossible and so can only deliver the unbelievable. A writer may, in writing say a chipmunk narrator, create a thing that passes for being an imagined rendition of chipmunk, but the likelihood that such a creation will succeed in suspending disbelief, be subtle and complex, and also produce an enticing simulacrum of chipmunkness is highly remote. 

As a writer -- and as someone who works and lives closely with animals -- I don't want to believe that Millet is right about that.  I also suspect that this perception of "unknowability" is tied in a way that is not immediately obvious, to the fear which she expressed before, that fear of the loss of otherness and being trapped in a world entirely of our own making.  

Of course, it was partly because of my own preoccupation with these questions that I began "Books and Beasts" in the first place.  So I will be returning to them again in the very near future.

Related Posts:


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Love in Infant Monkeys (Lydia Millet review/interview Part One)

Love in Infant Monkeys: Stories 

I believe I was in high school when I first read about Harry Harlow's famous studies with infant monkeys.  In the classic experiment, the baby monkeys were raised in isolation, and they were given a choice between a surrogate mother made of wire and one made of terrycloth.  In one version of the experiment, the "soft" mother offered no food while the wire one did.  In the reverse version, the terrycloth surrogate offered food and the wire one did not.  What Harlow found was that the monkeys always preferred the soft mothers, even when they didn't give food, and  they only chose the wire mothers when they needed food.  These experiments were considered landmarks in the study of infant imprinting and are still referenced in psychology texts today.  They are one of the studies that everyone with an interest in psychology knows about, but often without being intimately aware of, or giving much thought to, how they were conducted.  They've become part of the background of psychology, something taken for granted and often cited, like a metaphor whose literal meaning we have forgotten.

The truth of Harry Harlow's experiments is a little harder to take.  In the fifties and sixties he conducted numerous experiments on the effects of total and partial isolation on the behavior and mental states of rhesus monkeys.  These were infant monkeys taken from their mothers soon after birth.  In addition to the often cited "surrogate mother" experiments, Harlow and his students also kept monkeys in total isolation for extended periods of time.  This isolation produced monkeys with extreme psychological disturbances, including catatonia, repetitive stereotyped movement around their cages, and self-mutilation.  (You can find a video of Harry explaining his most famous experiment on YouTube .  The "mad scientist" feel is hard to miss.  You can also find a detailed and surprisingly uncritical description of the experiments at a site called Adoption History Project .  There's a somewhat more critical description on Wikipedia  -- but the reference notes to that article show that similar experiments in the effects of deprivation and manipulation of maternal bonds were still going on with rats and mice, at least as recently as the 1980's and '90's).  

Harry Harlow called his most famous paper, first published in Scientific American in 1959, "Love in Infant Monkeys".  He is quite open about his reasons for performing these experiments on his chosen subjects:

The first love of the human infant is for his mother. The tender intimacy of this attachment is such that it is sometimes regarded as a sacred or mystical force, an instinct incapable of analysis. No doubt such compunctions, along with the obvious obstacles in the way of objective study, have hampered experimental observation of the bonds between child and mother ... it is difficult, if not impossible, to use human infants as subjects for the studies necessary to break through the present speculative impasse. . . . Clearly research into the infant-mother relationship has need of a more suitable laboratory animal. We believe we have found it in the infant monkey.

Lydia Millet borrowed Harlow's title -- and Harlow himself -- for the central story of her 2009 short story collection -- "Love in Infant Monkeys".  This collection, which was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, is situated at "the rare intersection of wilderness and celebrity" (according to the jacket copy).  Each of the stories is built around the encounter between a famous human and an animal -- some very tenuous, some intimate -- and as a collection the stories show an impressive range of style, technique and point of view.  It has the titillation of a supermarket tabloid -- all those celebrities and their "hidden" lives --  wrapped up in stories that are at once accessible and challenging.  The best of them pack an emotional charge that will stay with a reader (they have with me), and as a whole the collection is one of the smartest I've read in a long time.  Millet seems to be a writer who thinks deeply about difficult problems and isn't afraid to let them remain difficult on the page.

But let's go back for a moment to Harry Harlow.

Millet's story adopts a distanced, almost biographical tone.  One of the greatest pleasures of this collection is its rich variety of points-of-view.   The stories contain everything from stream-of-consciousness (Madonna after shooting a pheasant on her English estate) to hearsay (a wife recounting an incident that happened to her husband), to fairly straight forward first and third person stories.  I was delighted to see so much range so I asked Millet about point-of-view and how conscious her decisions about it are while writing: 

I don’t typically think about point of view, I have that when I start; in this collection the voice was demanded by the celebrity-animal conjunction, I felt, where there wasn’t much room for choice on my part. I couldn’t have written about Madonna without interior monologue, or about Harry Harlow in the first person; these were dictated, form by content.

"Love in Infant Monkeys" (the story) begins with an almost text-book tone:

Harry Harlow had a general hypothesis:  Mothers are useful, in scientific terms.  They have an intrinsic value, even beyond their breast milk.  Call it their company.

One of the less high-minded pleasures of this collection is guessing exactly where the real lives of famous people end and fiction begins.  With some stories its easier.     For instance:

But he spoke harshly of his test subjects.  "The only thing I care about is whether a monkey will turn out to be a property I can publish," he said.  "I don't have any love for them.  I never have.  How could you love a monkey?"

I'm not sure how much those words reflect either Harry Harlow's feelings -- or his publicly stated feelings -- about monkeys.  Indeed, I couldn't find any public statements from Harlow that seemed to reflect feelings at all.  He talked about feelings, as a subject for scientific study, but never seems to have expressed his feelings at all.

More importantly -- in the world of Millet's story -- we still can't be sure how much Harlow's words reflect his true feelings, and how much they reflect a repression of feeling that is killing him.  He wanders through his laboratory, checking on the monkeys in his "pits of despair" -- the total isolation tanks in which he confines young monkeys to observe the effects.  He singles out one young female who is "still plucky ... still game to try and get out, to change her situation."  But he knows that the end is always defeat, surrender and depression.  Harry himself seems to be sinking into a pit of despair -- he is haunted by dreams of monkey mothers, fierce and protective, forced to watch their infants wasting away.  The bleakness and hopelessness, for both the subjects and the scientist, is inescapable.

I will continue the review of "Love in Infant Monkeys" along with Lydia Millet's most recent novel "How the Dead Dream", and have more of my interview with her in my next posting. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Hachi: A Dog's Tale 
Directed by Lasse Hallström, starring Richard Gere and Joan Allen

So far, I haven't done any movie reviews on this site -- after all, our title is "Books and Beasts" -- but I recently watched a movie that I think is right at home here.  Hachi: A Dog's Tale  came out in 2009 with little fanfare.  I pay a good bit of attention to movie releases, and I don't remember hearing anything about it.  In fact, I only found it by accident on NetFlix and ordered it because -- well, there's an Akita in the film.  What more do you need?

I remember several years ago when I was working as a volunteer in a companion animal shelter, coming in for my shift one afternoon and being told by the kennel attendants that the "big black-and-white dog" on the back run didn't want to leave his pen to go outside.  Apparently they had tried everything, from coaxing him out with treats to just putting a leash on him and insisting that he go.  Nothing worked.  Often, during the hours when the shelter was open the staff were busy dealing with the public and the volunteers were left on their own.  I frequently do well with difficult and stubborn dogs (as long as they aren't my own -- but that's a different story) so I went around to take a look at this problem pooch.  As soon as I stopped in front of his pen, I understood.  The beautiful black and white dog stretched out on the dog bed had the unmistakable "noble" head and upcurled tail of an Akita.  He was young, maybe a year old, and there were some pretty ugly wounds on the top of his head probably the result of a fight.

"Who in the world was dumb enough to tangle with you?" I asked him.

He just watched me.  Not friendly.  Not aggressive.  Just watched.

I understood right away what the problem was.  A lot of dog handlers and trainers claim that the secret to dealing with difficult dogs is to assert your authority, to make it clear that you are the "alpha dominant dog".  I've never been really comfortable with that.  In my experience, dog's are well aware that humans run the world.  Most of them respect that, a few of them rebel against it.  Some, like second class citizens everywhere, are constantly on the lookout for ways to beat the system or slip the leash.  But I suspect that if you could take a survey of dogs everywhere their number one complaint would not be that humans are too strict, or that (according to the Caesar Milan philosophy) humans are poor alpha's and don't provide enough structure -- not even that the food is boring and there aren't enough walks.  I'm pretty sure that the number one complain of dogs everywhere is simply this:  Humans don't listen.  And since dogs spend a great deal of their time observing and "listening" to humans, it must seem more than a little disrespectful.
What's true for most dogs goes double (at least) for Akitas.

The Akita -- Akita-Inu or Great Japanese dog -- is believed by the Japanese to be one of the oldest breeds, a claim that modern DNA studies seem to bear out.  Among those who have only met them casually, Akita's have a reputation for being aloof and disinterested.  But in their homeland, they are a symbol of unswerving loyalty.

Hachi is a remake of a 1987 movie Hachi-kō  by the Japanese director Seijirō Kōyama, and both are based (the American version more loosely) on the real life case of a dog named Hachiko who was adopted by Professor Hidesaburō Ueno of the University of Tokyo in 1924.  Hachiko learned to meet his master's train every day when the Professor came home from work.  In 1925 the Professor died of a cerebral hemorrhage while at work, and never returned home.  Hachiko continued to return to the train station to meet the afternoon train every day for nine years.  His determination attracted national attention.  Articles were published about him.  A bronze statue of him was erected at the train station.  So great was the national admiration for Hachiko that he became an iconic symbol of family loyalty and national determination.  His fame in credited, at least in part, with reawakening interest and pride in the national dog and helping to save the Akita breed from extinction after World War II.

In this version the Professor -- a composer and music teacher -- is played by Richard Gere.  We, as viewers, get to see the young Akita puppy crated up by a monk in Japan and shipped out to a new owner in the United States.  But the crate falls off a baggage cart and the puppy escapes.  By the time the Professor finds him on the train platform he has no identifying information, just a collar which bears the Japanese symbol for the number eight -- Hachi.  The Professor takes him in to save him from the pound, promising his reluctant wife that he will find the dog a home.  There is some low-key conflict between the spouses over adopting the dog, but it is pretty obviously a done deal.  The Professor and the puppy have bonded.  Indeed, what is truly remarkable about this movie is that it is entirely the story of the relationship between one man and one dog.  All of the other human business -- the ups and downs of marriage, the wedding of a daughter and the birth of a grandson, and so on -- are only backdrop, and as the film goes on they drop away.  By the time the Professor dies, the film is entirely Hachi's.  In moments it comes as close as any film I've ever seen to truly presenting us with the dog's point of view.  (A few brief scenes are even shot in black and white to emphasize the dog's perspective).    There are actors who can carry a movie just with the strength of their personality, and as this film goes on it is the surprisingly expressive face of the Akita Hachi that delivers the emotional punch of the film.  (According to the Humane Society reviews Hachi was played as puppy by two Shiba Inus and as an adult by three alternating Akitas.  Good work guys.)

In the shelter that day, I guessed that it would be futile to try more bribes or enticements to draw the Akita out of his kennel.  And I certainly didn't expect him to accept anyone he just met as an alpha.  There was nothing in his body language to suggest that he cared what status we assigned to ourselves.  Hung up on status and primate political projections, humans often overlook how deep the emotion of pride runs in some breeds. 
"I know you call the shots," some dogs silently tell us, "even if I can't quite figure out why.  But Buddy, you're going to treat me with respect.  Or I ain't going nowhere."

I slipped into the kennel and sat down close to, but not right next to, the Akita.  I talked to him quietly and let him get used to me.  After a while I gave him a treat.  After a few treats, I scratched his ear, careful to stay clear of the wounds on his head.  Like most big, heavily coated dogs he had a great need for scratching assistance.  Mostly, I felt, he just wanted to be acknowledge.  Finally, I got up and showed him my leash.  Glancing around to make sure no one could see me, I put my hands together and bowed slightly.

"Akita-san," I said.  A silly American making stereotyped Japanese noises at a dog who had almost certainly been born and raised within a fifty mile radius of Seattle.  But he lifted his head and let me attach the leash, and a second later he slowly stood up, stretched, and followed me out of the kennel.  Just two respectful acquaintances going for a walk.

For those who have any experience with Akitas, Hachi: A Dog's Tale rings especially true.  For any dog lover, it is an unabashed tear jerker.  More so than any other realistic film I've ever seen, this really is the dog's story.  It comes a close to making a real dog the central character as any film I know -- much more so than more well known films like Marley and Me.  It's one of the best animal films I have seen in a long time.