Review of “Animal” in The Collagist

My Life as an Animal
By Laurie Stone

Northwestern University Press
October 2016
978-0810134287

 

Reviewed by John David Harding

Have you ever been in the presence of someone who has seen, accomplished, and learned more in his or her lifetime than you have? There is something special about being in close proximity to such a person, as if, through some kind of creative osmosis, her or his brilliance might rub off on you. I experienced this feeling recently, but not with a person; rather, with a book, Laurie Stone’s newest story collection, My Life as an Animal. Formulating my thoughts, I returned again and again to the book’s central concerns: life and death, identity, friendship, art, love. But what seems like familiar territory at first blush is made remarkable by the main character’s singular voice, which renders these common subjects in ways both surprising and heartrending.

The stories in Animal are told from the point of view of Laurie, a first-person narrator who, you might have noticed, shares a name with the author. While some of the stories in the collection are traditional length, many are as short as a paragraph. My mind immediately went to the microfiction of Lydia Davis, and the narrator anticipates this connection by referencing Davis’ story “Happy Memories” in a story replete with unhappy ones. But the Davis reference is only one among many. Laurie alludes to a host of other artists and authors, including Susan Sontag, Joni Mitchell, W. G. Sebald, Gertrude Stein, and Jean-Luc Godard. These references are not made in the interest of being clever, but because each one establishes Laurie’s cultural milieu and illuminates some aspect of the story or the collection as a whole.

Take, for example, the reference to the French philosopher and writer Georges Bataille, whose erotic works Laurie admires for “their lack of affect.” The Bataille reference performs significant work in the book. First, it reflects the visceral lust Laurie feels for Marco, an acquaintance from the writing workshop circuit. Also, the reference provides insight into Laurie’s controlled narrative style. Admiring Bataille’s matter-of-fact narration—wherein the “narrator’s containment allows the reader to enter the story as if the story is about the reader”—Laurie nods to the French writer as an inspiration. She writes, “The events in Bataille’s stories unfold as if they were ordinary life, without apology or interpretation.”

Though her stories do not replicate Bataille’s hyper-erotic subject matter, Laurie adopts a similar approach to narration by offering details and events to the reader with little commentary on their greater significance. These stories allow us to make of them what we will. This is especially true of Laurie’s depictions of illness and death. Three important characters in My Life as an Animal experience life-threatening medical trouble, but Laurie does not sentimentalize her grief surrounding the demise of her loved ones. This style likewise marks her portrayals of life as a writer, which is of course extraordinary, but which she describes unpretentiously. For example, she casually mentions her assignments for the Village Voice and her time at the famed artists’ colony Yaddo. Whereas some writers spend a great deal of time devising a mythos about themselves and their art, Laurie inhabits the role of the writer without affectation.

Laurie’s stoicism might also be understood as a byproduct of the denigration she endures at the hands of her mother. Among the book’s large ensemble of characters, two characters stand out as especially significant: Laurie’s partner Richard, and her mother, Toby. By turns referred to as “Toby” or simply “my mother,” anecdotes about Toby are often disquieting. For example, when Laurie is preparing to marry a man at the age of nineteen, her mother expresses disapproval by saying, “Go get killed.” The love-hate tension forged between Laurie and Toby underwrites their relationship’s complexity. They quickly lose all resemblance to what we expect of a mother and daughter, which is to say that they seem authentic. From a narrative point of view, Toby’s unpredictability brings her character to life, inspiring the reader to cringe and laugh in equal measure. Of course, the humor is tempered by Laurie’s struggle to process her conflicting feelings about Toby, whose presence looms large in her life even after Toby’s death. “I am glad we will not meet again,” Laurie says, adding, “I wish she were alive.”

By contrast, Richard might represent the yin to Laurie’s yang, though to say that Richard “completes” Laurie would be a misstep, and an affront to Laurie’s autonomy. Richard does, however, contribute to greater balance in Laurie’s life. He accepts her—flaws and all—and the feeling is mutual. “Last night I had an insight,” Richard says to Laurie. “You are on the spectrum.” (Laurie elaborates, “He means the OCD spectrum.”) Richard continues, “I mean, think about it: the cleaning, the organization, the ability to spot a speck of dust on the floor or a coin on the sidewalk, the willingness to rewrite and rewrite until you are satisfied with the words. I am going to be more understanding.” And how does Laurie respond to this assessment? In typical fashion, with brevity: “Okay,” she says. Another example of the unceremonious way in which the couple dispenses affection for one another occurs in “I Like Talking to You.” When Laurie tells Richard that her life would be measly without him, he says that his life would be measly without her. When she asks him why, Richard says, “I like talking to you.” Laurie replies, “I like talking to you, too.” Herein lies the basis for their relationship: a deep intimacy grounded in acceptance, something Laurie could not share with her mother.

What’s more, recognizing that her relationship with Richard might not last forever, Laurie meets the possibility of losing him head on. “You could find someone younger,” she tells Richard. He responds, “I could, couldn’t I?” “Do it soon,” she says. “I’d rather have my heart broken now than later.” Richard responds, “Why?” As is typical of this collection, no answer, no interpretation is given. This particular story ends on a question, and we are left speculating about Laurie’s reasoning.

Though sometimes opaque, Laurie’s motives are typically consistent. Case in point, a story where Richard’s sister-in-law Ann lies immobilized in the hospital after experiencing a series of strokes. As the family gathers around Ann’s bedside, Laurie feels restless and in the way. She reports, “I said to Richard, ‘I’m going for a walk.’ I had been with the family for five days. He shot me the look that says, I love you for who you are, but do you have to be her all the time?” Laurie does not respond. Of course, she has no choice but to be herself. She is who she is.

And now, I have to remind myself that Laurie is not a real person—she is a character. But there is something so authentically real about her and her thought process laid bare in these stories that I have come to think of her as a living, breathing human being. As a reader, I am glad to have met her.

Patrick Modiano

In the writing of Patrick Modiano, the narrator is in continual motion, drifting from one temporary location to the next. Streets and buildings are more vivid in memory than the people with secret agendas who gather in bars to drink but not reveal themselves. The absence of connection creates in the author a feeling of permanent longing. It’s what a writer needs to remain in search of love. When I read Modiano (most recently “The Hat” in the current Paris Review), I feel the despair of the abandoned child, deserted by his actress mother who wants a life of her own. She seldom seems to recognize she has a son, like the mother in 400 Blows with her lover and sullen irritation with things domestic. I identify with the females wanting freedom, although these mothers in particular are vain, foolish, and heartless as portrayed by their neglected sons. I imagine if I had had a child, I would have kissed and hugged the person regardless of my sense of entrapment. I flatter myself, perhaps. What I can more easily see is the sorrow of the abandoned child, the sons Patrick and Francois. I see the child I did not have, longing for his absent mother. He is a son, and I am elsewhere. The pain of imagining this feels as if I really did it.

Store

One day at the health food store, my brother-in law came up to my mother. She was working in the front, selling vitamins, She knew every vitamin in the store and what they were for. My brother-in-law said, “Tobe, you’re gonna have to change what you wear. You’re gonna have to wear jeans and boots and a shirt without a bra.” She came to the store in tailored skirts and matching jackets tapered at the waist. She wore character shoes from Easy Spirit with a strap across the top. She laughed. There was an old, manual cash register she learned to work. It was on its last legs, and when it died my brother-in-law replaced it with a more complicated, electronic kind. She said, “I will never learn to use it.” He took her in a back room and taught her to work it. She wasn’t the kind of person who, after she learned something, made mistakes. She had not worked in all the years I knew her, and I wonder what it took for her to decide one day to go to the store. The nine years my brother-in-law owned the health food store were the happiest of her life. People asked for her when they entered. She was nicer than she really was. We are all nicer than we really are serving people, listening to their stories, feeling useful, hearing our names called out. Off stage she was shy.

Fear of Contamination

Dear humans, after 9/11, 2001, I wrote a piece called “Risk of Contamination” for Brendan Lemon, who was then the editor of Out Magazine. In the essay I compared the way fear of the female body as a contaminating agent of maleness operated in both western and eastern philosophies and practices. I said a crisis in the concept of masculinity in both the east and the west was endangering the world, and I said this crisis in the concept of masculinity linked geo-political factions that otherwise saw themselves as enemies.

I feel a need to review these ideas and make them available to anyone interested. This post is drawn from excerpted pieces I have written and email exchanges with friends. I’m providing it as a resource. Please do not debate me on this post. I am not a debater, and I will delete you. You are free to write what you want on your posts and debate there. Please do not mansplain to me about how I don’t understand race and class or whatever else you do not think I understand. If I want mansplaining, I can look in the mirror. Please do not ask me to explain humor. FYI: I have included a review of Spielberg’s “A.!.,” with many relevant themes, at the end of the post.

My focus is on misogyny, sexism, gynophobia, and patriarchy. I am going to speak about the psycho-dynamics of world events, the way phobias operate at an unconscious level and how individuals and societies disavow knowledge even as it forms in front of their faces. These thoughts critique essentialism—the notion that any identity has an essential (ordained, natural, universal, unchanging) character. I do not believe the identity of anything is fixed. It changes. It is mixed. It has always been mixed. “The natural” is a human construction. As soon as human beings learn something, it feels like we have always known it. That is the way “the natural” is born. If nothing is essential, nothing is pure. It never was. I will also be touching on “decline-and-fallism,” the notion that the present is a debased version of a previous golden age (when things were pure). Make American Great Again. That kind of thing. There is a long history of this thinking. It is called “negative classicism.” Patrick Brantlinger wrote a brilliant book about the history of negative classicism in Bread and Circuses, Theories of Mass Culture As Social Decay.

The concept of “maleness” is defined in all religions and in the societies shaped by religions as “not female.” In religions and other ideologies of enforced, gendered power, the function of perceived femaleness is to comment on maleness. In these thought structures, femaleness is a contaminating agent that must be kept separate from maleness, lest it pollute and degrade maleness. How do you keep it separate? You confine and control the female body, especially the sexual female body, in public and private space. You determine whether it can freely engage in sexual behavior. You maim and kill it if it expresses desires that threaten the sovereignty of males to control it. You attach notions of honor and purity to it that constrict and sometimes destroy it. You determine it must be draped and shorn to limit its sexual power over males. You outlaw abortion. No one cares about unborn embryos. They care about organizing the female body’s social role.

 

Here is the kicker. The practitioners of the most orthodox and rigid ideologies of male supremacy suspect maleness is already hopelessly contaminated. They know in some part of their half-conscious minds that if there were really such a thing as an essential male nature and an essential female nature, none of this policing would be necessary. The fear of contamination becomes a symptom that the contamination has already occurred and that people are hopelessly mixed. Fascism and other forms of totalitarianism are the shit-storm tantrums released when knowledge is simultaneously registered and disavowed. It is the crazy inside doublespeak and doublethink.

 

Every fascist and totalitarian regime immediately legislates to control the female body and force it to comply with its perceived biological function as a way to reinstate all forms of control and order. This is symbolic and also believed to be a practical remedy for social unrest. The out-of-control female body, in polluting everything, incites all reversals of ordained divisions of power. Outlaw abortion, and the poor will abandon their unions. If that doesn’t actually work, make poor people poorer.

 

All the other hatreds that exist around the perceived contamination model operate on the same system as the gender binary, so you could say they are modeled on this central hatred. You do not end misogyny, sexism, gynophobia, and patriarchy by addressing race, economics, class, ethnicity, and cultural diversity, because hatred of the female operates in all of these other systems as well. You might get rid of racism, homophobia, etc. by addressing what is at the heart of the gender binary and its false definitions of what a male person is, what a female person is, and what a person of mixed sex identity is. Only female humans are reviled entirely on the basis of being female . . . male humans are reviled for an aspect of their perceived identity that is separate from their identity as male humans . . . i.e. black males, Latino males, gay males, disabled males, Muslim males. I am in no way saying the injuries of racism are less horrendous than the injuries of misogyny. Included in the injuries of misogyny and sexism is that women are the only humans who actively militate against their own increased freedom and mobility. Who does something like that? A large number of white women voted for Trump, maybe not the disputed 53% statistic, but many.

 

The following comments on race evolved in a conversation with a friend who wanted to compare race and gender hatreds. This is from my email: We now know race is entirely a social construction without biological validity, and we know that around 60,000 years ago the homo sapiens we all evolved from moved out of Africa and across the globe. I think there may come a time in the future when so-called white people will no longer exist. Humans will all be mixed and their skin colors different and darker shades. That won’t end prejudice based on skin color, perhaps, but it is an evolving condition, always undergoing transformation. Although race may not be a real and fixed identity, phobias and hatreds around the perception of race difference are definitely real things. The same can be said of homosexuality. Humans do not exist in a homosexual/heterosexual binary, but the reality of homophobia is real. With regard to the male/female binary, that, too, is in many ways socially constructed, since there are more than two sex identities. Still, most people are born with either female or male sexual characteristics, and on to this binary has been layered a giant philosophy and ideology of difference. I said earlier that in patriarchal cultures, religions, and societies—meaning all the ones that exist now on the planet—maleness is defined as not-female and female is less defined than used as an instrument to comment on maleness. In any binary, there is always a power difference, and when there is a power difference, the group constructed as less powerful is policed, lest its less powerful essence contaminate the group that has power. In the gender binary, the female body is segregated, covered, and ritually cleansed to keep it from physically contaminating the male body and the male sphere, and the female body is maimed, jailed, and murdered for perceived transgressions against its so-called ordained roles. (The idealized female body is a subset of the reviled female body . . . neither is real or has anything to do with what women are and feel themselves to be.) This model of policed and inferior being is the core model on which all other forms of phobic hatred are based. It is prior, many thousands of years old. Using the term “male” to signify “the powerful” and “female” to represent “the subordinated,” then whiteness is male and blackness is female. Heterosexuality is male and homosexuality is female. Christianity is male, and Jews and Muslims (in the west) are female. Western colonial practices are male, and eastern subordinated countries are female. The deserving wealthy are male, and the undeserving poor are female. All propaganda campaigns of binary hatred use the same slurs to diminish the disempowered and policed group and these slurs are essentially the same as are attributed to females. Jews in Nazi propaganda and people of color in white dominated societies, to name two, are described as hyper-sexual, closer to animals, scheming, untrustworthy, tribal, clannish, disgusting in their social and physical practices, deformed in their physical beings and characters. Hence they must be segregated or destroyed lest they degrade the power body which is always at risk of mixing, miscegenation, contact, etc. and thus weakening the pure. So what I am saying is not that all women have it worse in society and culture than other oppressed people. Not by a long shot, depending on class, skin color, economic opportunities, etc. I am saying gynophobia and the misogynist and sexist practices that issue from it is the blueprint for all hatreds shaped by binary thinking and binary levels of oppression and double standards. What we are seeing in this country now is a violent reaction to the success of a black president and the candidacy of a female running for office. Trump has given white, heterosexual, unhappy male humans a forum to express the way they have been made to feel their power curtailed. White heterosexual male privilege is not supposed to know it exists. It is supposed to be taken for granted by everyone. It is supposed to be understood as natural, even to the people still moving in the world with that assumption, and yet this has changed. It has been challenged. It has been turned into a thing for contemplation, not a component of nature and of the natural. At least this has happened.

 

To see how I used some of these ideas in a piece of art criticism, here is an excerpt from a review I wrote about A.I. originally published in Tikkun.

 

From a review of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001), a film about the rise of Nazism:

 

Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” is a messy concoction of startling and plodding ingredients, but in moments of originality, it boldly grapples with fears of otherness. . .. The film comes alive in the middle section when we are introduced to Gigolo Joe, played by a radiant Jude Law. Joe is a robot designed as an ardent sex partner, and he is the most charged and canny presence on screen. In this section, too, Spielberg presents a wise and witty gloss on decline-and-fall thinking and the scapegoating of perceived cultural polluters. “A.I.” depicts a dystopia that is a consequence of our failures. Due to the misuse of Earth’s resources, the ice caps have melted, coastal cities are submerged, and the population has become tightly controlled, hence the need for robot children. At this point, robots, known as mechas, have become so advanced many are indistinguishable from humans, called orgas. The ranks of mechas have swelled because they labor without food. But although created to serve orgas, mechas are hunted and ritually tortured in gatherings called Flesh Fairs.

 

The film is shot almost entirely from the perspective of mechas. David and Joe are captured and caged, and we see a Flesh Fair through their eyes. The atmosphere is part rock concert, part Nuremberg rally. The audience is a mob, whipped to a frenzy by a promoter’s rhetoric of race hatred and ethnic cleansing. “This is a commitment to a truly human future,” he brays, as buckets of acid eviscerate and liquefy sacrificial mechas. He swears by “the law of blood and electricity.”

 

Gripping and sly, these scenes illuminate the mechanics of dread. The fear is of contamination, some sort of pollution seen to have a diluting, enervating effect on a group that considers itself whole and defined by essential and fixed characteristics. Castration anxiety, in other words. The threat of contamination is perceived to be from outside. All campaigns of hate against perceived others and all laws against miscegenation are based on the notion of a purity at risk of becoming degraded. In this understanding, the invigorating effects of hybridization aren’t valued, if they’re even recognized. Rather, mixing is imagined as a decline and fall. In the mind of the person who sees such threat, a sentence keeps looping: “Things used to be better, but now the times are sick, and the infection has to be cut out.”

 

The film shows there is never a time when this fear isn’t ticking away, because as soon as the idea of purity is formed, worry forms about its fragility. As soon as there is worry, it feels like proof that the contamination has already occurred, so in the minds of purists, the present is always a time when things are worse than they were in an imagined, safer past. Fear of otherness is a forceful denial that dilution has occurred, because the secret belief is, indeed, it has.

 

The orgas are aware that the boundary between what characterizes them as human and what defines mechas as nonhuman is continually shifting. “I’m real,” an orga child taunts David, as the boy, recently resuscitated from a cryogenic coma, clomps around with prosthetic devices on his legs. Amid a dump site filled with extinguished mechas, damaged mechanical beings rummage for replacement parts, attaching a new arm or jaw with an ease that humans awaiting organ donations can only long for. On a wall in the building where David is fabricated is a painting depicting “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a fable about the power of mass suggestion and the difficulty of acknowledging reality that is staring you in the face.

 

Who are we now? The mapping of the human genome, the increasing miniaturization of computer chips, research into brain function, and advances in robotics—all these promise increasingly intelligent, sentient machines, some of which will aid human beings by mixing with and penetrating them. Implantable devices are in the works that will enable blind people to process visual images and people with spinal cord injuries to use their leg muscles. Does anyone consider the heart patient now living with a mechanical ticker and people with other prosthetic devices less human? Today, amputee runners, outfitted with titanium legs, can outstrip sprinters with flesh-and-bone limbs. The metal legs don’t look like human legs and aren’t trying to imitate them. They are beautiful according to their own aesthetic. The freak over there has always been inside us.

 

 

 

Fiction

Third narrative. Auto fiction. Hybrid narrative, Semi autobiography. Made up.

Years ago in New York I knew a man with an even disposition. He hummed show tunes to himself. By night he played piano at a cabaret and by day wrote copy for a scrap metal newspaper. He wrote the entire newspaper with headlines such as “Steel Prices Stainless” and “Nonferrous Market Resists Rust.” I was married. If I had ever been in love, I fell out of love when I got married. The scrap metal writer would host gatherings in his Hell’s Kitchen walk-up. People would lean against exposed brick walls, holding jelly jars of wine, and I would feel glamorous. The scrap metal writer’s songs were meant to be satires, but he was too even-tempered to be biting. I would have followed anyone into a cabaret and out of marriage. Afterward, I missed it.

I Love Dick

Jill Soloway’s TV series I Love Dick is based on the autofiction by Chris Kraus. In Soloway’s version, everything is peeled away but a woman’s desire, and no one knows what to do with it. The woman burns. It is a job and a career move. In one episode, Dick, the object of Chris’s desire, visits the house where Chris and her husband, Sylvere, are living, and he asks Sylvere to corral his wife, who has been plastering the windows of  the town with copies of her love letters to Dick. People are reading them. Each person finds out part of the story, and the readers talk to each other. The readers are connected the way cells that model bone are connected. Sylvere tells Dick that no one can stop another person from being who they are. The men drink and talk about the absent woman. In real life, this would never happen. In real life, a woman would not fill the space between two men of accomplishment. This is how you know it is a feminist work of art.

Sylvere tells Dick he is Chris’s muse. Sylvere says, The more you reject her, the more you enflame her. That is her nature. He tells Dick, Chris is doing to you what men have done to women for centuries, and he asks Dick how does it feel. Dick says, it’s humiliating. Sylvere knows something about eros. Chris knows more. Finally she knows more about something than her eminent professor husband. She knows so much about eros, it drives out all other knowledge, and she finds she does not need it.

Dick is insulted that Chris does not need to know him in order to want him. He doesn’t understand that Chris’s desire is not about him. This is a really hard concept for him. It’s the kind of thing that could crack HAL the computer. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true. I’m half crazy all for the love of you.

Chris is burning for a place in the world, and desire is her portal. Dick is instrumental to this ambition. Desire is Chris’s portal the way it is the job description of Emma Bovary. Emma Bovary does not write letters. She does not write anything. She wants, she fucks, she dies. Madame Bovary is not a work of feminist art.

Chris understands desire’s odd detachment from the real. She is a romantic. She is an idealist looking for a career path, and she will do whatever it takes to push her way into the world. She collects all the unused thoughts no one has previously wanted to hear, and suddenly she has readers. Desire is so powerful, it can produce readers. In this way, desire is a golem, imagining the world as it thumps along. It may appear to others that Chris is making a fool of herself by wanting someone who does not want her. Chris sees this and explains this shame is what shuts women down.

Chris doesn’t need to forgive Dick for spurning her. Desire is larger than forgiveness. That’s what makes it eros, and that’s what makes morality and psychology irrelevant to it. You might as well put clouds in a box and expect them to keep their rectangular shape.

In the scene where Sylvere and Dick are talking, Sylvere gets an idea and tells Dick to fuck Chris. Dick says he isn’t attracted to her. Sylvere says, Yes, you are. Dick is a brick. He has made a sculpture of a brick and placed it on a pedestal in his gallery. Kevin Bacon plays Dick in the show. The mouth of Kevin Bacon has tightened and tensed with age. Griffin Dunne plays Sylvere. He has thick, entitled gray hair. Two old, world weary men turning their attention to a woman who lacks footing in the world as well as the beauty of youth. This would never happen in real life. Sylvere says, I want you to put an end to her obsession by fucking her. I want her to see that her cold, cowboy idol has bad breath and sore feet like the rest of us. Sylvere thinks in this way Chris will turn her attention elsewhere. He is wrong. Nothing external to Chris and nothing set in motion by men is going to control her desire. That is the point of her desire. Every male human knows this and uses religion, law, and custom to seize control of the thing that is out of their control. This is a feminist work of art.

In another scene Chris and Dick are about to have sex. They have kissed, and they are aroused. Chris tells Dick to touch her cunt. He says, You’re so wet. You’re wet from me. When he looks at his hand, he sees it is covered with blood. He goes to the bathroom to wash it off. He isn’t attracted to her enough to fuck while she is bloody. Pink water circles the drain like the aftermath of a crime. Chris leaves the house and walks down the dusty road in her cut-offs and cowboy boots, blood easing down her thigh. Her expression is inscrutable, like Dick’s. She is imagining the next scene she will write. Writing, too, is sex.

Today Richard said, “How do you think Sylvere and Dick Hebdige feel about becoming more famous for being characters in Chris’s work than in terms of their own achievements?” I laughed and said, “Who cares.”

 

Street Fair

I saw a woman at a street fair I had once been friends with. She had been warm and brilliant. Also the kind of person who falls in love with the way you are attracted to them and then feels cheated by who you actually are. At the street fair, she was blind to her surroundings, and I could watch her unnobserved. She was chatting with a younger woman. My former friend was old and fat, and I wanted to be glad, but I saw her beauty instead and that I still loved her in the way you cannot shake the people who have given you your life.