This past year, the Fiction winner for the US National Book Award was Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend (Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House; 2018.) It’s about a lonely writer who takes care of her friend’s Great Dane after the friend dies. Of course, it’s also about sexual harassment, loss, grief, literature, and a whole lot more. Some of the most heart-rending parts are about how Apollo, the dog, also grieves the loss of his master and how the protagonist and the dog come together in this shared loss.
Animals of all kinds — mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, arthropods, parasites, or worms — have
featured in fiction for as long as we have produced fiction. Globally, in ancient fairy tales, folk tales, and mythology, they’ve been shown as sentient, anthropomorphic beings. The earliest fiction read or watched by children has always had plenty of animals or animal-like characters. In Western literary classics, animals have typically been depicted as predators or trophy-hunting targets as this recent Literary Hub essay by Aditi Natasha Kini describes. In genre fiction — whether science fiction, speculative fiction, or fantasy — animals show up often as entire species or extra-terrestrial beings, too.
Whether these depictions are realist or surrealist or symbolic, with domesticated or feral/wild or mythical/imagined animals, one of the primary aspects they allow us to explore is how human and non-human behaviors can be both similar and different. Mostly, we see how we humans aren’t, in the end, so dissimilar from the fellow creatures with whom we share this planet. Another key focus point of many writers is the power-driven relationship across different species — how we connect and co-exist (or fail to, as the case may be.)
Yet, despite the seeming prevalence of animals in fiction, such storytelling is certainly not easy for the writer or for the reader. Writers try to be more careful now to avoid depictions of animal cruelty while also working to avoid clichés and predictability, include more known scientific facts about such non-human characters while being ethical and authentic in illustrating their otherness, and show them as our fellow creatures rather than as mere symbols or objects. Even when a writer’s own emotions are genuine enough — as when Flaubert wrote about his stuffed parrot in the novella
A Simple Heart (from Three Tales / Trois Contes, 1877) saying “I look on animals and even trees with a tenderness that amounts to affinity.” — they do not always succeed with the many representational and aesthetic challenges of portraying animals in their stories. There’s also the difficulty of engaging readers’ modes of sympathy and empathy without resorting to what could come across as cheap manipulation. And readers have to put aside their usual notions about such creatures and consider them as important and integral to the plots of the stories.
This month’s five stories feature such animals that are integral to the story. These are of the straight realism genre so there will be a follow-up with stories featuring more surrealism. Here are Sarah Orne Jewett, P G Wodehouse, R L Maizes, Parashar Kulkarni, and R O Kwon with stories about cats, dogs, herons, and cows.
“A White Heron”, by Sarah Orne Jewett (Coe College, Sarah Orne Jewett Project)
This is a classic short story that didn’t do so well when it first came out but it has stood the test of time well. Jewett is known for her regional writings and stories which are infused with rich local color and texture. This one has a folksy narrative style that’s reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood — complete with a little girl, a grandmother, and a hunter. However, this hunter is after a rare white heron, not the little girl, and he wants the girl to help him find the bird.
At the end of the article linked above, there’s a note from Jewett about how this story didn’t seem to excite her editors because of its old-fashioned romanticism. But posterity has turned it into a rather well-regarded, well-told commentary on prey versus predator, sportsmanship versus friendship, and loving nature versus loving people.
Sylvia’s heart gave a wild beat; she knew that strange white bird, and had once stolen softly near where it stood in some bright green swamp grass, away over at the other side of the woods. There was an open place where the sunshine always seemed strangely yellow and hot, where tall, nodding rushes grew, and her grandmother had warned her that she might sink in the soft black mud underneath and never be heard of more. Not far beyond were the salt marshes just this side the sea itself, which Sylvia wondered and dreamed much about, but never had seen, whose great voice could sometimes be heard above the noise of the woods on stormy nights.
“The Man Who Disliked Cats”, by P. G. Wodehouse (American Literature)
This British writer of comedic satire is not known for his animal stories. He’s known and loved the world over for his Jeeves and Wooster books and stories. While this particular story has all the hallmark Wodehousian flourishes and qualities — with the doomed romance, male characters who think they’re smart yet get into awful scrapes and more such — it includes quite a different menagerie alongside the usual human one. Trust ol’ PGW to anthropomorphize flies and have them acting up in the opening paragraph. Besides the disliked cat in the title, there’s also a militant parrot halfway through.
This is a story within a story and you might not be able to resist reading the main section in the voice of David Suchet’s Poirot, if you’ve ever watched the TV series. Wodehouse is an expert at his unique blend of comedy and drama, which makes this story a joy to read.
It was Harold who first made us acquainted, when I was dining one night at the Cafe Britannique, in Soho. It is a peculiarity of the Cafe Britannique that you will always find flies there, even in winter. Snow was falling that night as I turned in at the door, but, glancing about me, I noticed several of the old faces. My old acquaintance, Percy the bluebottle, looking wonderfully fit despite his years, was doing deep breathing exercises on a mutton cutlet, and was too busy to do more than pause for a moment to nod at me; but his cousin, Harold, always active, sighted me and bustled up to do the honours.
“A Cat Called Grievous”, by R. L. Maizes (Electric Literature)
Editor Halimah Marcus describes this story as “a bit of domestic realism with a wrench in it, in which a relationship or a home life is disrupted by a lightly absurd or even unrealistic problem.” It is certainly that.
A childless couple adopts a cat and shenanigans ensue. Beyond the complex dynamics of human relationships and human-cat relationships, there’s a lot more here. The cat in this story is like a child. Until, that is, a human child comes along. Then, the power dynamics shift between everyone yet again. If you have pets in your life, you will recognize some of this because pets are as much a part of our families as our siblings or children.
In the end we were a family. Not like yours, maybe, but one that suited us, and we stayed together a long time. Like most families, we began with two. Then, when Weldon and I had been married for seven years, he discovered the cat, curled inside a fleece-lined boot on our porch. We could have named her Boot.
“Cow and Company”, by Parashar Kulkarni (Granta Magazine)
This story won the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. It was the first such win for an Indian writer. Set during British colonial times in India, it describes how four men go in search of a cow for an advertisement for chewing gum. Along the way, Kulkarni takes sly, sharp looks at serious issues like racism, classism, religion, capitalism, animal cruelty, and more — all in ways that are satirically funny yet insightful. Watch the writer talking about the story on the BBC, here.
Kulkarni’s style is rather cinematic so that, even though the scenes seem rather absurd, the visual descriptions are compelling and highly believable. And that’s how he manages to both hold our attention and make his points.
Half a mile later, despite her many manifestations – cow milk, cow curd, cow butter, cow leather, cow dung, cow paintings, cow murals, cow sculptures, a cow temple, shops named after cows, conversations around cows, a cow cart without a cow, and a man standing on one leg, hands together, uttering cow … cow … cow … repeatedly, the animal in its whole earthly form was not to be seen. A group, about a dozen, had assembled around the man standing on one leg. Enquiries indicated he had been in that position for eight months, nine days and five hours.
“Legends of the Seoul Dogs”, by R. O. Kwon (The Southern Review)
A Korean-American boy is given a pair of puppies as a gift by his Korean father. Then, there’s a series of upheavals in the boy’s life. All the while, the puppies are growing into large, leonine dogs. They are his best friends, his only real family. He thinks of himself as “the one true master of the leonine dogs.” As Kwon unfolds the emotional hits that the young boy has to deal with, she also shows how he and the dogs become closer and closer and how he trains them well.
Kwon does something interesting with the narrative progression of this story by telling it in short Q&A sections that recount the near-mythical Korean legends of the dogs and the present-time individual trials and triumphs of the Korean-American boy. Not only does it ratchet up the tension and mystery but it also gives the story a particular atmosphere and mood.
His father rose from the floor, slapping gold fur from his slacks. The tightness of his father’s lips prompted the son to do what he should have done in the first place: he picked up the pair of tawny pups his father had pulled from his pockets with a magician’s proud flourish, tada. As he cradled them the boy heard his father say, “They are a gift for you because you are getting to be a man, and a man must learn to look after others.”
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There is much about the animal kingdom we still don’t know. Every day, scientific research reveals new facets of their consciousness and cognition, as this recent Atlantic Magazine essay by Ross Andersen describes. In particular, Andersen explores how some ancient religions, like Jainism in India, believe how even microbes are living creatures and work to avoid destroying them even inadvertently. Literature has yet to catch up with much of this research and knowledge about our many non-human companion species. Certainly, whether we write about them in mystical or enlightened ways, we need to further explore the diverse universe of animal experience because it can, eventually, only give us better insights into our own.