A shrewd, and necessary, decision the novelist Lydia Millet has made in assembling her first collection of short stories is the order of its content. As in George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, the stories that compose Love in Infant Monkeys are unified by their satiric dead aim, their perturbing vision of what it means to be American, and their originality. No writer but Millet, whose novels include How the Dead Dream (2008) and Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005), could have written these ten funny, weird, and ultimately sad and shaming stories.
A collection that lampoons celebrity culture might naturally begin with Madonna, one of the few to have ascended to the Olympian height of one-name fame. But “Sexing the Pheasant,” in which the pop icon is costumed for the hunt, is the right story with which to make the reader’s acquaintance for a more important reason: It’s giddy good fun. The Material Girl’s arrival at Jewish mysticism by way of renewable virginity; her nouveau riche purchase of the trappings of British aristocracy; her Mother-of-God airlifting of telegenic tots from Malawi and striding through security with them hung from her steroid shoulders like Vuitton bags—more power to the writer who can wring fresh humor from a being who has made herself into one joke after another. That Millet narrates her story from inside the narcissistic house of mirrors she envisions as Madonna’s brain is a risk; when it pays off, she becomes a writer to whom we deliver ourselves without hesitation.
By the time we realize Love in Infant Monkeys is a much darker enterprise than “Sexing the Pheasant” predicts, it’s too late, we’re caught. What seemed to be a frothy formula—putting famous people in absurd situations involving animals—has transcended itself. Funny as this collection is, carefree it is not. The more affecting, and serious, stories are spun around scientists rather than stars. “Thomas Edison and Vasil Golakov” uses the January 4, 1903, execution of Topsy, a Coney Island circus elephant, as a springboard. The “few grainy, gray seconds” Edison filmed of the execution show “the creature being led, swaying gently, to the place of her doom; there, a white fire rages around her body. She collapses onto her side.”
Topsy, whose electrocution ended a life of “forced labor, captivity, neglect, and abuse,” had killed “three men, the last of whom fed her a burning cigarette.” That she was executed rather than euthanized “assumes the animal is a moral agent, accountable to the law,” and invites Millet to take on human ingenuity, cruelty, and stupidity all at once. But the tale goes beyond satire. Millet conveys her relationship to her subject most simply in her choice of who rather than that as the pronoun appropriate to an elephant. Sentimentally, human beings elevate animals to our own level, which we simultaneously hold superior to theirs. We impose our feelings and intellectual conceits on animals, and when we find in them what we hate in ourselves, we destroy or abandon them.
Many, if not most, of Millet’s readers will go online to watch what she characterizes as one of the first snuff films, “a film that records the willful killing of an unwilling subject.” Some, like this fictional Edison, may be driven to watch it over and over. In fact, by 1903, the inventor had been staging public electrocutions of dogs and cats for years, ostensibly to demonstrate the danger of Nikola Tesla’s alternating-current electricity, owned by Westinghouse, in contrast to the direct current Edison intended to profit by. When he learned the owners of Luna Park had decided to make an example of Topsy, he jumped at the chance for such a hefty teaching moment. Not only did he make sure the event was recorded, he exhibited his film to audiences across the country.
Increasingly hostage to his guilt, Edison comes to view the elephant as a “priestly figure or godhead.” “How you glow, noble beast, in the infinite moment before your own death!” he cries, recognizing the flame-licked Topsy in her moment of transfiguration, the snuff film having become, like the Shroud of Turin, a relic that attests to the ever-living, ever-dying Christ.
Not every story in Love in Infant Monkeys is as complex and successful as this reimagining of history. Few readers would expect, or perhaps even want, so troubling an achievement—the introspection this tale spurs is not pleasant. But in all these stories, animals are the victims of human projection, not always passive but still recipients of our struggle to understand death, faith, and the divine. In the elephant’s eyes, Edison sees the reflection of his own, and all men’s, longing for a better place, where man is no longer man. Freedom and salvation are to be found in death, the only possible release from being human.
Having killed the gods we’ve invented—their familiarity breeding our contempt—we still have animals, creatures that persist, godlike, in their inscrutability and mystery. For as long as their consciousnesses remain alien, even while their brains and behavior are probed by curious humans, beasts will, Millet suggests, suffer something worse than our contempt: our fear and our worship.
Kathryn Harrison, whose most recent book is While They Slept: An Inquiry into the Murder of a Family (Random House, 2008), writes both fiction and nonfiction.