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'Only the Animals' pairs critter-protagonists with literary figures

All of these stories are narrated by the soul of an animal reporting from the afterlife, and the tales only get taller from there.

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    Only the Animals
    By Ceridwen Dovey
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    256 pp.
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The more assured and mature the writer, the simpler the premise, or so many a writing teacher has claimed. Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey’s new short story collection, leaves that rule covered in the dung of its various animal protagonists. All of these stories are narrated by the soul of an animal reporting from the afterlife, and the tales only get taller from there. In one, a dolphin recently deployed to Iraq by the United States Navy writes a letter to Sylvia Plath about imagination, motherhood, and literature. The dolphin critiques the animal poetry of Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, though her opinion on Hughes is tempered by a conversation she has with the soul of Elizabeth Costello, the title character of J.M. Coetzee’s novel, whom she has befriended postmortem.

Got that?

And yet that story works, as well as any story I’ve read in years. It is intellectually exhilarating and emotionally devastating. The reader is harmoniously engaged on three levels: with a fictional character, with the mind of the writer, and with one’s own experience.

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Dovey believes in her premises and characters so fully that you never get the chance to question them. Like the cartoon Road Runner of old – an animal character less loquacious than hers – Dovey can speed through impossible terrain by not looking down. Sometimes her wisdom takes the form of mockery, as in the story “Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would Be Handed to Me,” which makes a joke of spiritual-seeking and sexual bravado among mid-twentieth-century American men by taking away their muscles and turning such dudes into mussels. (One such bivalve abandons his girlfriend to follow a more enlightened mussel around the country, discuss philosophy and squabble over females – “the whole goal was detachment, gathering no algae, freewheeling.”) Other times – as in this story’s unexpectedly moving conclusion – Dovey’s wisdom takes the form of a rueful acknowledgement that, even when we find contentment despite our silly pretentions, that contentment is not safe from the demolitions of human history.

These reckonings gradually reveal themselves to be the collection’s main theme. The lives of these animals are shaped and destroyed by human war. A cat travels to a trench of the First World War in hopes of finding her beloved master, the writer Colette; a dog uncomprehendingly praises the vegetarianism of his master, Himmler, and of his sister’s master, Hitler; in the Sarajevo zoo during the 1992 siege of that city, a starving bear slowly tells a story about WWII to another starving bear, who is waiting for her to die so he can eat her. The specifics of the combat in question do not matter to these animals, whom Dovey equips with knowledge of great literature but an indifference to op-eds. The violence of our past century appears in this book the way it probably will to readers hundreds of years from now: as one long, undifferentiated catastrophe.

Which is not to say that the animals are merely passive victims or sweet Disney caricatures. If they are not quite as bloody-minded as the humans, they come close. Observing a shell-shocked robin in a leafless, bombed-out tree, Colette’s cat tells us that she “decided to terrorize the beautiful creature for a while.” The tortoise who narrates one of this volume’s best stories is not interested in the dull ideological issues behind the “Cold War,” a term coined by her onetime owner George Orwell, but she is interested in exploiting that conflict so that the United States or the Soviet Union – she doesn’t care which – will send where she truly wants to go: outer space.

One of the great pleasures of the book is encountering the literary references, but the profusion of them can be puzzling. Over the course of her life, the tortoise who ends up in space is owned not only by George Orwell, but by Leo Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra, Virginia Woolf, and Tom Stoppard. The mussels encounter a lobster who mentions that he once stalked Jean-Paul Sartre, which Sartre fans will recognize as a joke about the fact that, after taking hallucinogenic drugs, Sartre hallucinated for years that he was being stalked by a lobster. “Red Peter’s Little Lady” borrows the narrator of Kafka’s “Report to an Academy,” while referencing “The Hunger Artist” and Ian McEwan’s bestiality-inflected “Reflections of a Kept Ape.” Given that Dovey succeeds so well in making us see war anew through the eyes of her animal characters, why does she further complicate her project by adding all these references?

Plautus the tortoise gives us a clue, as he listens to his onetime owner Virginia Woolf read aloud from "Flush," written in the voice of a dog: “In her clever way, she had cleared for herself a little space in history, aligned herself with the greats in taking this risk.” This reads as a statement of purpose not only for this book, but also for Dovey’s previous one, the excellent novel "Blood Kin" – for which she was awarded the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” award – which told the story of a coup d’etat from the alternating perspectives of unimportant people whose intimate lives are uprooted by the revolt.

By portraying grand historical events and choosing as her characters those whom grand events sweep underfoot, Dovey announces her sly but staggering ambition. Over the course of her career, she may end up keeping pace when racing against the legendary writers who grace the pages pf "Animals." To quote one of the greatest of all American characters: Meep Meep!

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