Monday, April 28, 2014


I've probably written about this before, but it's petting my peeve again, so forgive me while I go on about animals in fiction.

As fun and terrific as talking animals, telepathic animals, anthropomorphized animals, and were-critters are, I have to say that I'm ready for some more actual animals to turn up in fiction. It's all over the place in non-fiction. James Herriot (James Wight: Herriot was his pen name) is one of my favorite authors, and I reread his stuff over and over again. Animals and people make an intoxicating combination for a lot of readers, not just me, and a good writer will not only recognize that but understand how it works.

I think anthropomorphizing or giving human voice and/or human dialogue to an animal can be charming, but it takes something away, maybe even more than it gives to the story. The challenge of communicating with an animal, working with an animal, even just taking care of an animal on a basic level is an almost magical interaction in and of itself, and requires no embellishment.

For example, I feed hummingbirds. At the moment I have three, or four, maybe more. It's hard to tell. They go through a lot of sugar water, enough that I don't have to worry about it spoiling before I have to make another cup of it. (One cup of water microwaved for one minute, 1/4 cup of sugar (plus I add a smidge. It's not like they have teeth to rot) and left to cool, covered, on the counter until it's room temp. Spoils in about three days, less in very warm weather and/or if the feeder isn't kept scrupulously clean.) Although they keep their distance and are very wild, we communicate through the feeding. They watch me take the feeder, and bring out a full one. (It's hard to say if they know it's the same feeder.) They're growing used to me, though they still don't trust me. And they have very full, at times stressful, social lives. I've watched them defend territory, build nests, court, feed, and I've watched them watch me. Turning them into an aggressive, vain companion with lots to say about my choice of husband takes away that odd and enchanting relationship that I and many others have had with their wild birds. I've held a hummingbird in my hand. I've had wild birds land on me and fly away without an 'oh shit' moment because they understood somehow that I wasn't a threat, despite the fact that many people are.

It's the same thing with cats and dogs. We tend to take them for granted and put words in their minds for them, and that's all good. I don't mind seeing that on the page at all. But how much deeper and more awesome it feels when an author captures that sense of 'other' in the dogs and cats they describe. I especially like it when they capture the feeling one gets when approaching a large, strange dog they don't know and the careful maneuvers both dog and human make to determine if they're going to be friends or enemies or whether they're just going to go their separate ways because the trust just isn't there.

Life of Pi captures this well. I was relieved to see that the animals remained animals, even though they were also symbols, and in many ways mystical. Animals are just as mystical and fascinating as humans just as they are. And this can extend to fantasy animals as well. I enjoyed Smaug's dialogue in The Hobbit, but honestly, non-speaking dragons that display cunning and intelligence in many ways are more frightening. The creature in Cloverfield never speaks a word, but it is utterly terrifying ... and fascinating. Creatures that don't speak and yet display intelligence equal or greater than ours in non-verbal ways are even scarier, and more awesome.

I think, too, that the more we pretend to know, the more we steal from the mystique of animals and monsters. One of the reasons the Godzilla remake didn't work for me was all the explanation and science they put on the screen. Not knowing has so much more power. And, though we can predict with fair accuracy that the purring cat on our lap will sit contentedly and knead our thighs with sharp claws until we shove it off, as a visiting friend found out, they may also unexpectedly, after a few minutes of mutual enjoyment, give a little love nip, or as another friend experienced, a not-so-loving swat from a claws-extended paw and a rapid, raking departure. For reasons unknown. For reasons unknowable, if we want to be honest about it.

And not-knowing can be good. We don't have to be know-it-alls. We can just appreciate and experience without claiming them. They, along with all other living and non-living things in our universe, are our companions in existence, and that existence at its core is mysterious, mystifying, and fun (and harrowing and painful and full of grief) in part because we don't own it. We're a part of it, within in, together. And because we don't truly own our animals or communicate as effectively as we communicate with each other, though we take responsibility for them and take care of them (or kill them or torture them) there's always that edge in any relationship with an animal.


Anonymous said...

I like this.
It is also, I think, very hard to do well. As you read, you can see how authors project their own beliefs on 'what animals are' onto the animal characters... it's a bit like reading female characters written by a male chauvinist.

I've just picked up a book from the library, modern version of 'country diary of an Edwardian lady' with photos, notes, takes place on a working farm. I'm very much looking forward to leafing through it. It's nonfiction of course.


Kami said...

The book sounds fantastic!

Kami said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

It's good observation.
The writer of the diary speaks of waking to magpie song and I'm like, "magpies don't sing, they kind of raucously squawk".
Well this morning at first light there's this very loud - melodic - warble outside the window and I look up and see three magpies on the electricity transformer.

So I guess they do sing. I see them every day and never noticed that.


Kami said...

Birds make different noises for different situations. I'm probably one of the few people in the universe who likes jays, namely our local Stellar's Jay. They make all kinds of weird noises. The main ones are the familiar raspy caw, but they also make a piercing cry that sounds very much like a hawk, and what sounds something like giant water drops alternating between two pitches.
Now if I can just figure out which bird it is that sings part of the Austin Powers theme song ... it might be the same bird too! But I'm pretty sure it's some kind of sparrow.