Book Review: New in Print
This sometimes comic story collection explores the relationships between celebrities and animals
Reviewed by Sarah Jean Billeiter, Fri., Oct. 9, 2009
Love in Infant Monkeys: Storiesby Lydia Millet
Soft Skull Press, 192 pp., $13.95 (paper)
Love in Infant Monkeys: Stories, novelist Lydia Millet's first published foray into collected shorts, begins inauspiciously. "Sexing the Pheasant," like every work in this collection save one, involves a relationship between a celebrity and an animal – in this case, Madonna and a pheasant. The association here is direct, Madonna having shot the pheasant while hunting. Unfortunately, her self-congratulatory inner monologue on her use of British slang, interspersed with guilt over the bleeding bird at her feet, feels forced, as though it were conceived to fulfill a requirement: stories about animals and famous people.
However, as the collection continues, the narration is further removed from celebrity and relies less heavily on inner monologue, sometimes even providing a secondhand account of someone else's interaction with the famous and animals.
With "Sir Henry," although the star's appearance is again forced, it becomes clear that Millet's focus on human-animal relationships provides more than just a clever theme. This story of a dogwalker and his charges subtly describes the human desire to see attributes in animals we wish to find in other people. The titular dachshund and a poodle are more dignified than their respective owners, the drunken David Hasselhoff and a dying violinist who, the walker notes, "would have been euthanized long ago" were he a dog.
Any feelings of the theme being forced end with "Sir Henry"; the remaining works heartbreakingly explore humans' myriad bonds with and psychological uses for animals. In "Thomas Edison and Vasil Golakov," Millet describes Edison as a troubled man who begins to see an elephant – whose execution via electric shock he designed – as a martyr. Edison's conflicted feelings over executing a creature incapable of motive reduce him at times to railing against the elephant and at others to admitting to it his deep guilt as he frequently rewatches footage of its electrocution.
Millet shows a talent for the comic in her straightforward style, as well as in her use of a Sharon Stone look-alike as an example of society's treatment of celebrities as pets. However, her work is most touching when heavier, as in a narrator's comment on Tesla's assertion that real beauty in a bird lies under the feathers: "My own love, it has seemed to me, has only ever been a love of feathers. However hard it tries, it never gets beneath."