Animals: so hot right now.
OK, but first, full disclosure: I am a dog person. I volunteer at the Humane Society. I socialize with people I met at the dog park…outside of the dog park. I’m always finding dried beef liver in my pockets (note: dried beef liver rehydrates in the wash!). I’m frequently invited to dog birthday parties. To the last one, I brought pupcakes. I post a lot of pictures of my dog on Facebook. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of my Facebook friends are dogs.
But it’s not just dogs, and it’s not just dog people. Animals—and, in particular, their anthropomorphic representations—are no longer typecast in picture books and animated movies. From memes to memoirs, modern art museums to Modern Love columns, there’s obviously a market for this stuff.
Two new-ish books by David Sedaris and Dave Eggers got me thinking about the whats, the hows, and the why-nows of our apparent animal-mania. Though neither author is a stranger to humor, these books are significant departures—in Sedaris’ case, a collection of twisted and pithy animal fables; in Eggers’, a collection of bizarre and touching “animal renderings.” What gives, guys? Let’s take a closer look.
Eggers’ entry, It Is Right To Draw Their Fur, bears a strange formal resemblance to the popular animal memes that also show up in my Facebook newsfeed. But Eggers, it seems, is after more than just a LOL.
For one thing, these animals can spell. For another, what they’re spelling is far more intriguing than the usual anthropomorphic ventriloquism—these beasts are plagued by an existential Angst that seems at once animal and human. Also intriguing is the connection—or apparent lack thereof—between any particular animal and its accompanying “slogan.” The animals aren’t explicitly illustrating the text, and they don’t quite seem to be “saying” it, either.
And for yet another thing, this book is not just a book—it’s an oversized hardcover folio, complete with 26 poster-sized prints. If superficially meme-like, Eggers’ “animal renderings” are also decidedly limited-edition—reproducible and distributable, but also tangible, snail-mail-able, more valuable in both form and content than most of their digital counterparts.
Sedaris’ collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, is less LOLCats and more Henri le Chat, if Henri channeled his infamous ennui into making a lovechild with Orwell and Aesop. A naughty lovechild, that is. The majority of Sedaris’ animal characters are captured behaving rather badly: a Stork mother deliberately deceives her inquisitive offspring; an self-involved bear alienates her friends and meets a grizzly end.
But these portrayed misbehaviors are just the beginning. The stories in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk lack the clear moral messages that characterize Aesop’s fables, and this subversion of the fable form is itself a kind of authorial meta-naughtiness—as is the fact that a well-known literary essayist like Sedaris is writing this book in the first place. Is it literature? Is a children’s book? Is it a “gift for squirrel lovers”? Is Sedaris, in other words, serious?
And, for that matter, is Eggers?
The latter seems to throw his hands up at the question in the preface to It Is Right To Draw Their Fur:
I realize this whole endeavor is ludicrous. You are reading an essay in a folder full of drawings of mammals by a forty-year-old man who should be doing other things with his time. I thank you for your kind attention and forgiveness.
And Sedaris offers a subtler acknowledgement: his collection is subtitled “A Modest Bestiary,” as if to say, “No, no, don’t mind me; I’m just writing silly animal stories.”
But their proffered modesty belies the fact that these guys are both household names, the kinds of omnipresent, über-successful writers who are actually paid to do book tours. If these books were credited to lesser-knowns, would so many people still read them? Or is our interest contingent upon our perception that Eggers and Sedaris, while humorous, are “serious” writers of “literature”? Are these “serious” writers cashing in some fame chips just for fun? Because they can? To prove they can? Or are they actually being, on some if not all levels, serious?
The question of seriousness, I think, is a defining one in our cultural moment. The cats are trying to understand the treadmill; we’re trying to understand why we’re watching the video. And then why we’re attending the exhibit. And then why the museum is hosting the exhbit in the first place. Earnestness is out, irony is in, and as a result it’s often difficult to determine exactly who is playing just what kind of joke on whom. Or whether anyone’s actually joking.
One famously irony-free zone is musical theater; the earnestness of the genre perhaps explains why musicals have never quite made it all the way into the mainstream. In a recent op-ed, Stanley fish parses the panning of the movie version of Les Misérables, criticizing the critics whose attitude he sees as inherently ironic:
Irony creates a privileged vantage point from which you can frame and stand aloof from a world you are too savvy to take at face value…every reviewer who is not just a bourgeois cheerleader (and no reviewer will admit to being that) is an ironist.
But, Fish says,
‘Les Misérables’ defeats irony by not allowing the distance it requires. If you’re looking right down the throats of the characters, there is no space between them and you; their perspective is your perspective; their emotions are your emotions; you can’t frame what you are literally inside of.
Unless, that is, you climb inside an animal. As a technique, anthropomorphism doesn’t necessarily preclude irony, nor does it guarantee seriousness or humor—but in its best deployments, anthropomorphism can engender simultaneous closeness and distance, humor and seriousness, a kind of earnest irony that can highlight some essential truths about us homo sapiens.
For Eggers, the “ludicrous” premise is what allows him to access—or at least, to publish—the bizarre, charming earnestness at the heart of It Is Right To Draw Their Fur. The careful, contraction-less grammar of the title is reflected in the palpable tenderness with which Eggers renders each animal, each thoughtfully fine line of fur. The text is at once deep, poetic, philosophical and awkward, funny, childlike—the kind of stuff that would never show up in a novel uncut by self-awareness and self-doubt. The abstract disconnect between the text and the animals makes what they’re “saying” feel all the more universal. And the quirky profligacy of the whole “full-color package” is a barbaric yawp in the age of Teh Internets (“Clap if you believe in paper!”).
Sedaris’ access to earnestness is via a more roundabout route. True, his are flawed and complicated beasts—but this only makes them feel all the more human. Not “human” in the literal, opposable-thumbed sense of the word, but rather as in “I’m only human,” the way we use it to explain our own weakness or helplessness in the face of temptation and struggle. Which, funnily enough, kind of makes us seem all the more animal—a species as vulnerable to its own instincts and urges as any squirrel or chipmunk.
The science historian Lorraine Daston attributes our fondness for anthropomorphism to a basic human “longing to transcend the limits of one’s own intellect, emotions and experience…to transcend the confines of self and species.”
Which, for Sedaris and Eggers, means also transcending the confines of genre, expectation, culture at large. In one way or another, animals allow these authors to tell stories they might not otherwise tell—to strip away the trappings of the novel or the essay and get straight to the part that is most purely, unironically human (while still safely draped in the proverbial protective pelt); to access the universal directly (but not cloyingly); to let the metaphor reveal what it will about the metaphor-maker. If seeing ourselves in animals gives us the distance we need to frame our experiences without the same old savvy irony, if it allows us to see earnestness as cute or funny instead of embarrassing, if cats are what make us most genuinely LOL at our own human foibles, well, save me a seat on the Ark. I’ll bring Eggers and Sedaris. And pupcakes.