Most of us know from experience that animals have immense power to draw forth fierce, unexpected emotion. In her new collection of short stories, Love in Infant Monkeys, Lydia Millet strikes this particular nerve again and again, using animals—plus her rich prose and expansive imagination—to make us laugh, cry and respect every creature, from the humble pigeon to the roaming lion.
The author, who lives in the desert outside of Tucson, has penned six novels, including My Happy Life and the much-acclaimed How the Dead Dream. But she truly excels at the short story. Love in Infant Monkeys has all the emotional weight of a novel, but in bite-size snippets of all different flavors.
Millet's approach is simple: She centers each story on a real-life event involving a famous person and an animal. In one story, a childhood friend of Jimmy Carter is surprised to see the president arrive at his home to apologize for something that happened decades before; the friend believes the apology stems from Carter's standoff with the famed "killer rabbit." In another tale, Madonna has an emotional near-crisis after shooting a pheasant on her English estate. In a laugh riot of a tale near the end, an Indonesian billionaire becomes obsessed with Sharon Stone and attempts to impress her (or, unbeknownst to him, her impersonator) with the Komodo dragon that once attacked her ex-husband.
From these setups, Millet lets her imagination take off, often leaving the celebrity in the background of the tale—leaving us not to wonder what happened to the famous person, but why it is that we care so much about celebrities.
In Millet's stories, an animal is often the catalyst for these emotions. For example, in a story featuring David Hasselhoff, his dog-walker also cares for the happy dog of a cancer-stricken violinist. Knowing he is about to die, the violinist asks the walker to consider taking his pet for good—therefore asking the walker to break his most important professional rule. Elsewhere, a concerned scientist working with Thomas Edison watches the inventor driven mad by a recording of an elephant's execution, which his work with electricity made possible. Master inventor Nikola Tesla, comforted near the end of his life by his collection of pigeons, and the writer/philosopher Noam Chomsky, disposing of a hamster cage with his granddaughter, are just a few of the other luminaries that grace the book's pages.
All of them, however, are secondary to the imaginings of Millet, who has an endearing boldness in her writing. Who else would mess with presidents, inventors and pop superstars? But these famous people always seem flat in the presence of the animals, who comfort the humans and drive them to obsession, exultation and despair. Millet pulls this inversion off thanks to her rich details and emotional acuity; in addition, her fictional supporting cast—Tesla's maid, Edison's assistant, the dog-walker—reminds us that the narratives of "normal" people are just as fascinating as those of the famous.
Millet's stories are best when they steer clear of humor; the Madonna-vs.-pheasant account seems farcical, as Madonna is so extremely exposed that an attempt at exploring her inner mystery seems stymied from the get-go. Millet shines when plucking at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Love in Infant Monkeys seems a silly title, but the title story is absolutely heartrending, about the scientific studies done on monkeys by a famed scientist who was trying to prove that "mother love" is an important factor in healthy human development. To prove this, he spent years putting baby monkeys into complete and total isolation, leaving them emotionally vacant and their mothers hollering, biting off their own fingers in despair.
Millet is smart and informed in her writing. While she doesn't hesitate to augment fact with fiction, she clearly spent many, many hours doing the background research necessary to make sure she was doing her subjects, both human and animal, sufficient justice. This, combined with her fearless mixing of past and present, joy and pain, and human and animal, means that each of her tales is as rich and savory as a delicacy—you don't want to rush through them, and you wouldn't mind sampling them again and again.
They have a surprise side effect: In making animals the emotional center of her tales while celebrities hover listlessly by, Millet just might make you log off from Perez Hilton to spend more time with your cat.