Tag Archives: Non-human protagonists

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?: The unexpected play(fulness)

For some reason (let’s call it 20-something-too-little-sleep-and-too-much-wine, and not what it is, which is my terrible memory) but I didn’t remember Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? was a play, until this weary-reader delighted in finding a slim volume on the self and not another (as was feared) 500 page tome (no doubt each page of the 500 page novels I’ve made my way through have been worth it, but I’m just saying, at this point in 10-10-12 I’m taking my slim volumes where I can get ‘em).

Whatever the other outcomes of this reading project might be, I do hope I continue to read more plays, as my heretofore monogomous-with-occasional-cheating relationship with fiction may be (may have been) keeping me from some gems.

The Goat is probably meant to be absurd. If I knew more about drama I’d be able to tell you about the school it belongs to, the history it’s drawing on, the playwrights its responding to, but I have no idea. What I do know is that the play follows Martin and Stevie’s relationship when Stevie discovers that Martin, her husband of 30 odd years, has started to have an affair with a goat – Sylvia – and that he loves Sylvia just as much as he loves her. There’s some other plot details that likely enhance or complicate the thematic questions – things like their son, Billie, and his apparent homosexuality; or, Stevie’s penchant for breaking every material object the two own – but I gave my full attention to the goat-loving, and so have little to say about other, likely no less punchy, symbolic events. 

I have to say that The Goat gets at the heart of (what I understand to be) the confusion for both people in any once-monogmous-no-longer relationship: for Martin, the confusion of how it might be possible to love two souls at the same time with equal vigour and devotion; for Stevie, how her partner could equate their love with anyone (anything) else, how he could degrade its singularity. That the play uses a goat to explore this confusion and sadness only exemplifies the already inherent absurdity of adultery – the impossible to square realization that while love is not finite and it might be given in excess to more than one person, it is nevertheless accepted by individuals who might feel entitled to its exclusive privilege. What difference a goat or another woman? Who is Sylvia, really, but a placeholder for every diversion that alerts us to the precariousness of monogomous devotion? The necessity to consider, if not to reconcile, our investment in singular attachments with boundless love?

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Tiger, A True Story of Vengenace and Surival: Incredible

        

Nearly everything about Tiger is “incredible,” in the sense of hard to believe, remarkable, and extraordinary. The book perfectly matches form to content, as the subject, the Amur (or Siberian) tiger defies easy understanding, and the form, a meandering blend of history, geography, biography and anthropology, likewise resists categorization.

I found myself captivated by the narrative through-line, the story of a particular tiger and the people he eats. A story that probes why this tiger hunts the people he does, and whether and how to assign blame for the attacks that take place (both person on tiger and tiger on person). Indeed John Vaillant (the author) castigates humans and their rapacious greed for meat and fur, while nevertheless addressing the systemic economic and social factors that make poaching not only viable, but necessary for (some) poachers survival. I was no less captivated by the meandering side plots of Russian-Chinese relations, Russian settlement, taiga geography (the Boreal-Jungle! how rich a descriptor), and eco-animal history. And perhaps most taken with the poetic descriptions of the tiger and his habitat, descriptions that truly “captured” the tiger in his size, majesty and awe.

That the titular Tiger in this story is a protagonist might strike some readers as a stretch, he receives no internal or focalized narrative voice, and yet, the reader has little doubt about his motivations, his affective responses to situations, we feel – emphatically in my case – for this tiger. I mourned his death, if not in an of itself, than for its necessity. 

The epilogue to the book, too, is remarkable. Affecting again in its description of current conservation efforts and the impediments they encounter, in particular, the admission of tiger ‘farms’ a notion made deeply disturbing precisely because Vaillant has done such tremendous work in exploring the majesty, beauty and indeed the humanity of the tiger.

So this part ought to be troubling – that I feel so deeply for the tiger because Vaillant makes him out to be human – so let me nuance that by pointing out that the text similarly confuses the border between the human and the animal, arguing for the animality of humans, to the point that the biology of the species matters far less than the actions it takes: both humans and animals can claim humanity in the sense of generosity, empathy and remorse, while both humans and animals can also animalistic in their appetites, instinctual reactions, and callous disregard for the existence of others.

Truly a remarkable work, and one that I think I’m ready to name the best so far in 2011. Strongly urge you to get to the library to get a copy of this book.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Erin's Favourite Books, Prize Winner

Animal Farm: Best (yet) history of the Russian revolution

                                      

I’ve only read a few histories of Russia. N. suggested the category “Books set in Moscow,” but I find Russian everythings (history, literature) daunting and intimidating, and so I’ve done my best to avoid finding out how little I know by avoiding reading anything too Russian (notable exception: City of Thieves, which is really, really, awesome). If I had known all I needed to do to understand the Russian revolution was to read Animal Farm I might not have spent so many years in self-imposed ignorance.

In any case, after reading (well, listening to) Animal Farm I feel I have a grasp on the main players and events of the Revolution. I appreciate the extent to which propaganda was used (have I already forgotten the book I read earlier this year about propaganda? what was it? set when Trotsky dies? Sigh.) to lead the “masses,” and the ultimate capitulation of communist/socialist/marxist ideals. That said, I do not have any better understanding of the differences among communism, socialism, marxism. I did not appreciate the representation of the animal masses (the sheep, the dogs, the ducks, the people) as unthinking and blithely following orders.

As for the classification of this book as a book with “non-human protagonists,” I feel somewhat reluctant to class it as such. This book has human protagonists, who happen to be pigs/horses/ducks. The only non-human character is the cat (unnamed) who behaves as a cat ought to: with a total disregard for the expectations and desires of others.

I do have a much better appreciate for why this book makes such frequent appearance on high school curricula: it perfectly demonstrates allegory and symbolism. That it does a poor job of characterization is probably an effect of the allegorical focus. What I mean is, I wonder whether a straightforward allegory can have interesting and complex characters if the whole point is to replicate/represent real events in symbolic/narrative terms? Maybe?

All said and done I feel braver in approaching Russian history because now I’ll picture dueling pigs and subservient horses and all will make perfect sense.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Fiction, Prize Winner