Ostensibly a memoir about the disappearance of his cat, Biscuit, Peter Trachtenberg’s Another Insane Devotion has rather little to do with the cat. Rather, Biscuit’s refusal to return home one evening after being let out to roam is the jumping-off point for a meandering memoir of the author’s life and the cats populating it. The books is also a meditation on his marriage to author Mary Gaitskill, referred to here as “F”.
Trachtenberg admits he takes liberties with the memoir form, writing in the “Prefatory Note”: “This is a work of nonfiction… Still, the facts in this book vary in their density… The book also contains an artifact, and incident or detail that originates solely in my imagination.”
He adds that this “artifact” is there out of curiosity; he wants to know how much a memoir can accept “admixture or adulteration” .
In other words, Trachtenberg is an unreliable narrator and the book isn’t entirely true. Depending on your point of view, this invalidates Another Insane Devotion as a memoir. If you are more kindly disposed, Trachtenberg’s warning places the narrative in a gray area, forcing the reader take it at face value. If you are of the latter persuasion, you can only hope the book is good.
I can’t tell if Another Insane Devotion is good or not; I found it to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. Given the preface, I decided to simply read it, not looking to glean any particular truths, only to find myself stumbling, as Trachtenberg also chooses to move about freely in time, jumping from 9/11 to his wedding day to the present, where his marriage is foundering. The totality is bewildering, particularly the ending, which manages to be both anticlimactic and lacking in closure.
We begin with the acquisition of Biscuit, a sweet-tempered stray with a chronic respiratory infection. When Trachtenberg gets a teaching job at the University of North Carolina and Gaitskill is invited to an artist’s residency in Europe, the couple must leave their cats (they have between three and four, depending on where one is in the book) in their upstate New York home. Trachtenberg, who is deeply in debt, cannot afford a professional cat sitter, hiring instead an incompetent teenager to care for the animals One night Biscuit, who with the couple’s other cats, is permitted to roam outdoors, does not return, sending Trachtenberg into a worried frenzy.
The cat-owning world divides into those who, like Trachtenberg and Gaitskill (No, I will not call her “F”.), feel cats’ inherently feral nature must be honored by allowing them to roam outdoors. Then there those who feel responsible pet ownership means not exposing your pet to wild animals, other, possibly feral cats, feral people, or cars. To allow your cats outdoors is to risk their being injured, killed, or simply, like Gaitskill’s beloved cat Gattino, to vanish. (Yes, I realize my bias is showing. My 16-year-old cat, whom I adore inordinately, lives indoors.)
With Biscuit’s disappearance, Gaitskill is plunged into deep mourning. She goes so far as to consult several psychics, who bluntly inform her Gattino is dead.
From Biscuit’s disappearance we jump to Trachtenberg’s first “serious” cat, Bitey. Bitey is serious in that Trachtenberg has vowed to be more regular in his habits, including caring for the cats that, until now, were shadowy presences in his life. Bitey, as inferred by her name, wasn’t the most affectionate animal, but she captivated the author as cats will captivate certain people. Bitey’s arrival sends Trachtenberg on digressions about the domestication of cats, cat history, and feline behavioral studies. His take is that cats are basically devoid of “thought” in the anthropomorphic sense: a cat lying on your chest is not expressing affection; it wants to be warm. A cat playing with crumpled paper is following purely instinctual behaviors. They are largely oblivious to us as individuals beyond food sources. They fascinate in the purity of their detachment.
Trachtenberg is also entranced with what cats perceive, particularly the cat encountering human nudity. To this end, we see him in the bathroom, one or another of the cats hanging about. He feels oddly exposed. But if a cat is “thoughtless”, surely they think nothing of human nudity. There is also much discussion of Adam and Eve, the loss of innocence, and the role animals—specifically cats and dogs—play watching the fallen, naked first humans haplessly trying to cover themselves. Mascaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve From Paradise is cited, along with Jacques Derrida’s musings on cats apprhending him naked. If you’re lost by this point, you are not alone.
Perhaps even stranger is Trachtenberg’s portrayal of Mary Gaitskill. A woman of enormous writing talents, her work features women on the edge, often in degrading relationships with men, the sex dark and loveless. The author, it appears, is as dark as her books, a contained, controlled presence who rarely cries, whose smiles are carefully measured gifts. Trachtenberg relays a chilling incident early in their courtship: “Just before F. and I became lovers, I hung back. It was true I wanted her very much… The trouble was that by then I also liked her. I hadn’t thought that would happen.”
When Trachtenberg relays this to Gaitskill, she looks at him, unblinking, for several seconds, then “suddenly, breathtakingly, she smiled.” The moment is straight from a Gaitskill short story.
From Trachtenberg’s writing one may infer the couple sleep in separate bedrooms—he makes repeated references to his bedroom or hers—but this is never explained. Yet it’s clear, even as their relationship becomes difficult, that Trachtenberg loves her. It’s unclear whether they remain married, or how Gaitskill feels about the minute examination of her character publicly laid out in a book.
I wish I had more to offer about this work. In the acknowledgments, Trachtenberg refers to the many editors who passed on the book, finding it “bizarre”, as he himself does. The reader who enjoys the very unusual, who is pleased by jumps in time and space, who is not hung up on conventional narrative structures or “the truth” may enjoy Another Insane Devotion, particularly those fond of cats who agree with the “feral feline” viewpoint. The more conventional amongst us will be bemused at best, irritated at worst.