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Urban Fauna: A Review of My Life as an Animal

By Joan Hawkins.

Laurie Stone, My Life as an Animal (Northwestern University Press, 2016)

When My Life as an Animal was published last fall, Largehearted Boy invited its author, Laurie Stone, to post a playlist for the book. She programmed Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan sliding right into Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s a telling accompaniment to a story collection that shifts register and tone, upends genres, and challenges reader expectations, all without losing the reader’s trust. Animal belongs to what Stone has called “Third Narratives”—something between fiction and non-fiction that incorporates techniques “drawn from novels and short stories, memoir, cultural criticism, essays, journalism and photography.” It’s a hybrid text, a mongrel form. It engages memoir, in the sense that it is a book composed of life-events and fragments. But it incorporates the narrator’s intellectual life as well. And so there are lovely lengthy passages talking about Jewish history, Beckett, W.G Sebald, cellular biology, museums and the sculpture of David Nash.

“We who write poetry,” Eileen Myles once wrote, “and think about it all the time—who walk the streets that other humans walk, past pizza stands and trees, are citizens meanwhile of another country,” a country where everything—the most random encounter, the most banal of tasks—becomes grist for the mill. Writers are always writing, and Stone’s achievement lies in vividly showing how that is true for prose writers as well as poets.

Some of the stories are long, moving gracefully between present and past lives. Some are quite short, a few pages, that operate like brief shot sequences (rather than fully fleshed out scenes) within the larger movie of the narrator’s life. For me, the long pieces in the volume are the more satisfying, but that may well be part of Stone’s strategy. There’s an element of bricolage here, a sort of do-it-yourself construction (the original handy-man meaning of bricolage). Animal is a work built from the ground up, out of scraps, and bricolage is perhaps the perfect literary mode for discussing one’s life, because that’s what life is—a DIY edifice made from found fragments, assembled with creativity, courage and brio. Since the volume aims to call attention to what we think we want from a story, the short pieces remind us that life is never one long, unbroken narrative, but filled with moments, mere snapshots of events and people we’re not sure advance the larger narrative of our lives.

Borrowing from cinematic montage, the book’s structure uses linkage and juxtaposition, allowing each narrative to comment on the ones preceding and succeeding it. The stories can be read independently of the others, but the full impact comes only at the end, once all the stories have been experienced. And as in montage, the effect here is not of smoothing out contradictions into one homogenized whole of a life, but rather that of a collision, which creates meaning through fission. What Stone’s narrator is looking for is not absolute truth but rather the “narratively right”—meaning, “the relief of patterns.”

Stone’s narrator is smart, funny, well spoken, and complex. Prickly, too. She finds her way in life, and in these stories, by challenging ideas and arguing with those close to her. If you’re looking for a sweet cozy of a tale about a 60-year-old woman falling in love and moving to Arizona, you need a different book. There is a sweetness here. But like fleur-de-sel chocolates, it’s complicated with an edge of salt—a fierce and demanding intelligence. Animal is the perfect book for that corner café table that Patti Smith writes about in M Train, where you read and reread books until you get the hang of their logic.

If you have the time, try to read this book in one long sitting, perhaps two. The montage effect is at its most pronounced in the first half of the book, and it’s best not to let too much time elapse between reading those stories. Animal opens in medias res: a 6o-something writer (I will call her L. to distinguish her from the author) has fallen in love with Richard, a 56-year-old professor of museum studies, and has moved to Arizona to be with him. In the first story, she haunts garage sales, looking for the items they need to furnish their new home, and setting out, in the process, many of the themes that recur across stories. L. doesn’t see what her lover Richard sees. “It is one of the reasons I like floating along beside him,” she says. But it’s also a source of tension throughout the book. She’s American; he is English. She’s Jewish; he is not. She avidly collects stories, easily falling in love, she says, with strangers who look interesting or make a connection. He’s more reserved, less in the moment. “You two will always fight,” L.’s friend, Catherine, says. And L. agrees, citing a deep ambivalence at the heart of real love. “With us it is always, ‘Do you love me as I am?’ And the answer is ‘Yes and no.’ We are of two minds. We half-believe.”

From here, the stories fan out, drawing from different parts of L.’s life. Sometimes they explicitly reconnect with Richard, with Arizona, with the present. Sometimes they’re there to show us how L. came to be the person who would, at the age of 60, cast caution to the wind one more time. “I believed this kind of thing would not happen to me again,” she says. But “when has anything you thought about the future turned out right?”

In “Sixty,” she tells us, she met Richard at Yaddo, the artist colony in Saratoga Springs. At the end of their stay there, they drive to the airport and can’t find the entrance. “It’s a sign I shouldn’t leave,” he tells her. But he’s married. And when he gets home, he will tell his wife of many years that he has met someone. “Richard says he did not leave his marriage for me,” the narrator tells us. “He says Yaddo cracked him open.”

She could have left it there. But she doesn’t. “We believe what we believe,” she tells us, implying that Richard may be deceiving himself. And in a story that is also about Kate Millett and the early days of Second Wave feminism, she ends on a note that is honest and politically incorrect. “I am on a train a year later,” she writes, “and run into a woman I slightly know. I tell her about Richard, and she says, ‘How could you let him leave his wife?’” The woman “does not sound judgmental,” L. tells us, “more like a naturalist asking a scorpion how pincers work. I say, ‘Richard decided,’ but she knows I did not put a gun to his head, and I know I did not say, ‘Stop,’ because he might have listened to me.”

“If you think there is a part of you that makes you unlovable,” she writes earlier, “you will protect it like a child and show it to everybody.” One of the deep strengths of this book is its refusal of what Sartre called bad faith. The narrator trusts the reader’s intelligence enough to speak bluntly about the things we often try to camouflage. After all, who hasn’t, at one time or another, played the scorpion? Who wouldn’t be willing to do so, if the right person stood at the end of a ramp, “looking like an arrow with his slim body and silver hair, and the hard little spike that holds [us] up just melted.”

One of the brilliant maneuvers in this not-quite-romantic romance is to place the sobering story “Leaving Gardner” at approximately the halfway mark. It’s a story that marks a complicating turn in the larger narrative. In her thirties, L. fell in love with Gardner, an artist 20 years her senior. When she was 44, he died of cancer, after a terrible struggle that Stone describes as only she can. “There is something about language,” she writes later in the book, “that hurts the thing it describes.” Usually I would agree with her, but not in this instance. Describing the cancer-ravaged body of her beloved, L. speaks in a way that filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha has called speaking nearby. Speaking nearby is different from speaking about, in that it allows the person or the thing described to have its own voice. For those of us who have loved and lived with people who died of cancer, the final days are marked with the disease’s own very clear narrative. Cancer’s voice, when you hear it, is quieter and less obscene than the demon in The Exorcist, but no less insistent on gaining total possession of your body. It is that voice that is caught here.

The story reminds the reader just how great a leap the now 60-something L. is making. When you fall in love at 20, at 30, at 40, you can believe in happily-ever-after. By the time you’re 60, and have lost both your parents, a lover, and countless friends, you know that there can be no forever. If the relationship works out, if you get your Secret Agent Lover Man, and if you don’t die together in a car accident, a bomb explosion, or a natural disaster, then one of you will have to watch the other die. And that awareness fundamentally alters the political economy of love. “We fall in love with people we don’t pick, not really,” L. tells us. “Love falls over you like a weather condition, a wolf’s paw, a cape.” But when it happens at 60, it takes a lot of courage not to run away as fast as you can. This story, and the collection as a whole, reminds us of what the diamond ads and Disney movies fail to tell us about what love really is: an existential crisis, an engagement without appeal.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joan Hawkins is an associate professor of cinema and media studies in the Media School at Indiana University. She has written extensively on horror and the avant-garde.  Her books are Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde and Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001. She is currently co-editing an anthology on William S. Burroughs.

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 9th, 2017.