Animal Studies

Anahid Nersessian

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, without turning into a beast. In Lydia Millet’s Magnificence, a widow feeling guilty about her husband’s death compares herself to a taxidermy display of stuffed carnivores. In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a blonde dream girl fakes her own kidnapping, slaughters her ex-boyfriend in flagrante, and threatens to abort her pregnancy if her husband turns her in. Chase Novak’s Breed is a grisly, gristly horror story about infertility, genetic engineering, and well-heeled Manhattan mothers who find it difficult not to eat their children. Freakish females also abound in Bronwen Hruska’s Accelerated, where becoming-animal means breast implants and backs made double-jointed by Pilates.

In each of these novels, femininity is scary, mutinous, and ungovernable. It is too close to nature, red in tooth and claw, and it typifies everything icky about bodies in general: womb and tomb, biology and biohazard.

I mean, duh.

Is there anything new to say about the powers of horror lodged in the female body? Some of us cannot even say the phrase “the female body” without rushing to qualify: “of course it depends what you mean by female/body/the.” The notion that women have a monopoly on being at once desirable and repugnant is itself based on a frequently assailed concept of sexual difference that says males and females of the human species are hardwired to be opposites.

The limitations of such dimorphic concepts have been vividly registered of late. As Emily Apter observed in these webpages last year, if there is a lesson to be learned from the public debate around Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged rape of Nafissatou Diallo, it is that it has become more and more difficult to yoke feminism to progressive politics when feminism takes difference as its organizing principle. For this among other reasons, posthumanists have captured the critical vanguard in academia, often positioning themselves aggressively against fields such as gender or ethnic studies. For all its virtues, posthumanism is at best intermittently invested in synthesizing its own anti-identity politics with the raw materials of the social world, which remains riven by differences sexual, economic, and equatorial.

But now and then, a cluster of people running for state office blurt out accidental catchphrases like “legitimate rape” or claim that it is impossible to get pregnant from nonconsensual sex because, all together now, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. Public discourse hurtles down the tubes, and even the most committed posthumanist remembers the wretchedness of being told that some beings—for example, the unborn kind—are more human than others. There is nothing like an election year to encourage nostalgia for the aspirational purity of liberté and égalité, minus the fraternité. And there is nothing more likely to make a girl seek refuge in the infantile narcissism of the blogosphere than the unkillable revenant of well-funded misogyny creeping closer and closer, hissing and burbling: “It rubs the lotion on its skin!”

The novels under review are notable for discussing this thing called the female body as if the last twenty years of queer theory, systems theory, ecocriticism, and animal studies never happened, or as if RuPaul’s Drag Race weren’t a ratings smash. Consequently these novels seem fatuous and outdated, which is precisely why they so vividly illustrate the ambivalence that accompanies Being Feminist Now when, attacked by the right and dismissed by the left, feminism is forced to concern itself exclusively with reproductive rights. This ambivalence is the real horror story, along with the narrowed scope and curtailed ambitions of what was once a more capacious and imaginative form of social justice. The literary payoffs of these political disappointments are murder mysteries and creature features, whose most obvious progenitor is that early posthumanist masterpiece of utopian meltdown, Frankenstein.

Reading Breed, Gone Girl, Magnificence, or Accelerated is an experience not unlike the last election: one finds oneself wishing that these were really allegories about larger issues such as global warming and the natural disaster that is homo sapiens, but actually they are just about forced maternity and joyless sex. One expects that Gone Girl and Accelerated, set in part and entirely in New York City, respectively, will expose the small-mindedness of the outrageously rich, but it soon becomes clear that what makes their characters’ skins crawl is a woman with access to a womb of her own. The hope that these books are about universal issues surfaces only to be struck down by the recognition that they can’t possibly be about such issues because they are too busy being about women—their uses, abuses, and curious capacity to dominate the political present without directing it. The separation of environmental awareness and class consciousness from feminist critique is the drama and the trauma of these fictions. It is also the spectacle by which both popular and academic culture alike are currently, often unknowingly, transfixed.

Accelerated aims for the sociological precision of a Victorian novel, like Oliver Twist. Hruska’s villainous Fagin is school psychologist Bev Shineman, with her “Long Island accent,” poorly applied makeup, and extra pounds. The heroine is an adorable primary school teacher named Jess, who falls for the protagonist, Sean Benning, a single dad deserted by his once high-powered executive wife, who “lost her shit” after spending six years as a stay-at-home mom.

Hruska is interested neither in bromides about the viciousness of boys’ culture nor in a more serious meditation on the relationship between carnality and carnage.

The paper-thin plot of Accelerated revolves around Sean’s son Toby’s elite private school, where Dr. Shineman is pushing diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) on male students, including eight-year-old Toby. While the mothers eagerly dose their kids with prescription amphetamines, Sean resists this aggressive medicalization of boyhood. With Jess’s help, he unmasks the school’s cover-up of Toby’s best friend’s death, caused by an ADHD drug. The penultimate pages of the novel rattle off dreadful if hardly surprising facts about the pharmaceutical industrial complex. They emphasize, in particular, the doping of young boys for no other reason, Hruska suggests, than that they are noisier and less obedient than their female peers.

Hruska loves boys. Boys are sweet, bright-eyed, and benign, their limbs akimbo in the glad animal movements of childhood; girls may be “more easily controllable, and more easily teachable,” but boys reward and reap the benefits of “more energy, more creativity, and more patience.” Meanwhile, the women of Accelerated are either oozing silicone or, like Sean’s sister Nicole, have “embraced a butch look” of “thickened” thighs and a short haircut in which “gray strands had crowded out the brown.”

All this leaves one wondering if Toby’s female classmates are truly more docile and less inspiring than the male ones or have simply been shocked into stupidity. It also raises the question of whether the novel’s pervasive misogyny expresses Hruska’s sentiments or Sean’s. Does Hruska mean to satirize the self-image of the preening single dad, panicked by the advances of Park Avenue cougars but smitten with the gamine next door? I honestly don’t know. The story is told exclusively from Sean’s point of view, without any of the formal quirks that might imply something darker beneath his otherwise sympathetic surface. After all, this is a man who fantasizes about shooting one of those cougars with a handgun in the school playground. But Hruska is interested neither in bromides about the viciousness of boys’ culture—with its shooter games, military fetishism, and stockpile of free porn—nor in a more serious meditation on the relationship between carnality and carnage.

Lydia Millet’s Magnificence, by contrast, opens with some well-rehearsed remarks to the effect that all men are “insane, basically, due to testosterone.” The book begins with the protagonist, Susan, in a car with her daughter, gently ruing the “vegetarian” love she shares with her husband while reciting borrowed insights about how everything from sociopathy to autism is “an exaggerated form of maleness.” This is the point where we might expect a companion truism about men’s higher sex drive, but it is in fact Susan who self-identifies as a “slut,” unfaithful to her husband and unable to look at a guy without imagining him in the sack.

Everyone and everything in Millet’s novel is dried up, not on account of a warming planet but because desire is figured as a fragile husk, a skin shed by people who should know better than to become so attached to it.

Too bad that being slutty is not a source of pleasure for Susan but “a survival tactic”; too bad that her sexual escapades are represented as dissociative, clammy, instantly regrettable affairs. At its best, adultery helps her drum up a sense of her own importance, so that she can see herself as the “subject of a biopic,” with a “score [to] follow her movements.” But Magnificence is no Cléo de 5 à 7, the 1962 Agnès Varda film that tracks its heroine’s quest to be a person of consequence and lightness, both of world history and beyond it. What matters instead is the laboriously eccentric set-up that finds Susan and her child, a phone-sex operator, living in a mansion that doubles or rather triples as an unofficial taxidermy museum and a hangout for church ladies, who draw Susan to them “via some kind of post-menopausal force.”

The back cover of Magnificence advertises an interest in “evolution and extinction,” but desiccation would be more appropriate. Everyone and everything in this novel is dried up, not on account of a warming planet but because desire is figured as a fragile husk, a skin shed by people who should know better than to become so attached to it. Magnificence ends with a nod to ecological catastrophe, but this grasp at topicality rings hollow, a disingenuous apology for pages of gloomy solipsism.

Millet has a gift for making sex—extramarital, non-reproductive sex, anyway—into a sign of human depravity, to be repented rather than enjoyed. On the upside, Magnificence did inspire me to reread the pithier and much more skillful treatment of similar themes in Patricia Lockwood’s short poem “He Marries the Stuffed Owl Exhibit At the Indiana Welcome Center”:

 

he covers her in kisses and the owl
thinks, “More moths,” and at the final hungry kiss,
“That must have been the last big bite, there is no more
of me left to eat and thank God,” when he marries
the stuffing out of the owl and hoots as the owl flies out
under his arm, they elope into the darkness of Indiana,
Indiana he screams is their new life and WELCOME.

 

Novak’s Breed and Flynn’s Gone Girl offer messy, often exhilarating counterpoints to Hruska’s and Millet’s airless parables. The cleverness of Gone Girl is hard to describe without unleashing a tsunami of spoilers. The book has two narrators, Nick Dunne and his wife, Amy. Following the collapse of the economy in 2008, the Dunnes move from their Brooklyn townhouse to Nick’s hometown in Missouri, where the river has all but dried up and many of the locals are unemployed. Those locals include the Blue Book boys, former factory workers who made “those blue books you used for essays and shit in college,” and who now deal drugs and firearms in an abandoned mall. Amy has been unhappy and Nick has been cheating; on their anniversary, she vanishes in what looks like a violent kidnapping. It soon becomes clear, however, that Amy is initially out to frame Nick for her murder.

Not as tightly crafted as Gone Girl, Breed nonetheless shares with Flynn’s novel a taste (so to speak) for marital distress so grave it turns carnivorous. This story hews close to the Upper East Side, where wealthy Alex Twisden is so desperate to get his wife Leslie with child that he lets a mad Eastern European scientist inject them both with the DNA of philoprogenitive animals, including a fish that eats its own young. Their twins, Adam and Alice, are born; flash forward to a decade later, with the children on the run from their hungry parents and their own tween hormones, which are turning them into lupine creatures craving raw meat.

Flynn and Novak exploit an old-fashioned preoccupation with ravenous, repulsive womanhood to remind us that it is never too late to put women in the kitchen, or the zoo.

Both Breed and Gone Girl use their misogynistic overtones for good (or something like it). They compose violent elegies for feminism by tying its losses to two separate but related phenomena: a horror of sex and a concern with environmental crises. While academic feminists throw in their lot with ecology and Jezebel.com corners the market on thinking sex, Flynn and Novak exploit an old-fashioned preoccupation with ravenous, repulsive womanhood to remind us that it is never too late to put women in the kitchen, or the zoo. Yet even as the emphasis on the plight of wealthy, white wombs mirrors the limitations of contemporary mainstream feminism back to itself, these writers go a step further and turn the drumbeat of reproductive rights into a Technicolor bloodbath of frustration, ambition, comedy, and consequence. Popular models of gender equality have become limited to the point of being reactionary, stuck in the mud and spinning their wheels. Neither Breed nor Magnificence has any better ideas, but they do transform this business of getting nowhere fast into an acid blend of wit and horror.

Breed most directly and most chillingly places so-called women’s issues, like sexual violence and forced reproduction, at the center of a ghoulish fable about people who are quite literally posthuman. Although the novel makes a familiar claim that women, insofar as they undergo the “science fiction” of pregnancy, are not fully human to begin with, it is far from a celebratory exploration of what Donna Haraway calls “the womb of a pregnant monster,” or the repository of techno-political potential it represents. On the contrary, Breed is a vivid example of just how difficult it has been for academic ideas to change the course of the cultural mainstream. This novel has a taunt threaded through it: one paw forward, two paws back.

Breed cannot imagine a posthumanism whose negative impacts are not disproportionately sustained by women. “Chase Novak” is the pseudonym of Scott Spencer, author of Endless Love and a writer generally convinced that women fare worse than men in the tug-of-war between normality and passion, in this case a passion for human flesh. For Leslie, heeding the call of her new nature means waking up one morning to find her pubic hair tripled in volume and her capacity for speech rapidly deteriorating. For her daughter, Alice, it means recognizing that she will have to join a pack of mostly male children like herself and her brother, test-tube babies from genetically mutated parents, if she wants to avoid being raped by one of them. When Leslie’s language starts to fail, the first things to go are, tellingly, her pronouns:

 

I can’t sleep.

Leslie. Please. I’m exhausted.

I smell smoke.

It’s not from here.

Her smelling it!

Who’s smelling it, Leslie. Who?

Me!

 

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Leslie’s confusion of I with her, and she with me, intensifies her grammatical relationship to femininity while making her a stranger to herself. And yet this self-estrangement does not help her shift from a singular into a compound subject, from an “I” to a “her” to a “we.” Instead, Leslie’s animal aphasia catches her at the midpoint between losing her mind and gaining something that might resemble collective consciousness.

Despite the fact that the Twisden children are drawn to roving groups of kids like themselves, the primary social unit for Novak’s wolfish adults is not the pack but the pair. Leslie is therefore stuck with the guy who forces her to be injected with a fertility cocktail, whose displays of affection include sniffing her butt and feeding her human meat (“I could eat. What do we have?” “Cuban.”). If there were any doubt as to how we should read Leslie’s visit to the nutty Dr. Kis, who with the help of his assistant Reggie holds her down and sticks a “very large old-fashioned needle” into her arm, her neck, and the side of her skull as she screams “No!” over and over again, 110 pages later Leslie recalls the doctor as “an overpowering presence who seemed almost to rape her with his needles.” You don’t say.

Leslie’s animality, like Susan’s sex life, could bring her some pleasure but instead is the source of nothing but pain. It begins, persists, and ends in tableaux of stomach-turning violence, and it has a formal analogy in Novak’s uneven use of third-person narration. The story begins as if it will unfold from Leslie’s perspective, with side trips into free indirect discourse. “It’s well known,” Breed begins, with a furry wink at Pride and Prejudice, “that people in New York think a great deal about real estate.” And then: “In the case of Leslie Kramer, she actually was aware of the house Alex Twisden lived in before she had ever met him, or even knew his name.” Things continue in this fashion until Alex arrives on the scene; as soon as he opens his mouth, he hijacks the mental life of the story. Other characters get their turn, but Leslie’s consciousness is never again open to us in quite the same way. It is, as Alex puts it, as if Leslie “is fading just as surely as loved ones can begin to disappear when they become gravely ill or start to succumb to Alzheimer’s disease—there is less and less of them, until one day they are gone.”

It may sound banal to suggest that Breed silences Leslie’s voice to signal her political subordination. Banality, however, is the ground these stories of monstrous females share with the public face of twenty-first-century feminism. “Breed” is both a noun and a command. It is also a synecdoche for the concerns by which the feminist imagination is presently dominated. When Breed falls back on worn images of cannibal mothers, uncontrollable wombs, and women who can’t speak, it is simply flipping between two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, there is the hallucinatory space of the Internet, with its endless supply of offhand diversions that suggest a Leslie-like forgetting of how to use one’s big-girl words. On the other, there is a political vocabulary so attenuated it only contains one word: choice. This doubled infantilization of mainstream feminist culture is simply the inverse of the image traced on Breed’s cover: a minimalist silhouette of a pregnant belly and breasts, a garish balloon ready to pop.

When Flynn’s heroine finally cuts her ex-boyfriend’s throat with a butcher knife, it’s not just part of her scheme, but also payback for the punishing squeamishness of enlightened heterosexual masculinity.

It is to this millennial genre of feminism lite that Amy Dunne, the unlikely heroine of Gone Girl, raises a bloody middle finger. Flynn’s Gone Girl aspires to greater formal complexity than Breed but is less interesting than Novak’s book because compulsory childbearing makes a better subject for allegory than unreliable narration. That said, Flynn’s portrayal of Amy is bracing and terrific, by turns soliciting and skewering our empathy for this foul-mouthed con artist. Amy’s descriptions of Brooklyn fall back on clichés about “ironic people” with “Bettie Page bangs,” but there are moments in Gone Girl that home in on something far more significant about contemporary young, urban, and politically progressive culture, namely its tendency to cloak reactionary attitudes toward sex in the guise of intellectual seriousness. When Amy lures her ex-boyfriend Desi into sleeping with her so she can pin her rape and kidnapping on him, she gets so bored that she blurts out a series of four-letter words, which Desi mistakes as a learned performance of pornographic ecstasy. “It doesn’t have to be like that, Amy,” he assures and admonishes her, “I’m not Nick.” “Very true,” Amy thinks, before “try[ing] to work up some tears because I know he imagines me crying with him the first time.” When Amy finally cuts Desi’s throat with a butcher knife, it’s not just part of her scheme, but also payback for the punishing squeamishness of enlightened heterosexual masculinity, for which women’s pleasure, women’s victimization, and women’s political conventionality are so intimately linked.

Clear-eyed, vulgar, and violent, Amy forcibly educates us in the thrills of anger matched by intelligence. This is nowhere more clear than in her parting shot at Nick, to whom she insists on staying married: she does love him after all, or so she says. Aware that Nick is thinking about poisoning her, she lets him know that she’s pregnant, and that if he tries anything she will end her pregnancy one way or another. The threat extends to the child they will have, the child Amy hints she will always be ready to kill. Amy’s plan is brilliant, a canny twist in our contemporary catechisms of reproductive rights. It is not Amy who is held hostage by her body, but Amy who holds Nick hostage through his attachment to what her body can do. She ends the novel weaponized, her husband “learning,” as she says, “to love me unconditionally, under all my conditions.”

In an interview published in 1994, Ursula K. Le Guin offers this summary of her classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, set on a planet where all the natives are androgynous: “Everybody [in the late 1960s] was asking, ‘What is it to be a man? What is it to be a woman?’ It’s a hard question, so in The Left Hand of Darkness I eliminated gender to find out what would be left. Science fiction is a wonderful opportunity to play this kind of game.” The inheritance of Le Guin’s brand of utopianism is now evident in the growing intellectual movement to deemphasize not only “man” and “woman” but the human itself, in favor of a politically, ethically, and ecologically sustainable vision of our planetary future.

Perhaps literature might now take a turn from Le Guin by imagining utopias where no form of embodiment is held in contempt. Science fiction has long had the monopoly on the elaboration of alternative worlds, but there’s no reason to believe this must always be the case. As Le Guin says, sniffing out ways to think, talk, and carry on differently “is part of the writer’s job” as well as the reader’s. If none of these recent works obviously lead the way toward new ideas about fiction and feminism, they at least show just how unsatisfactory the present, in all its creepy-crawly inertia, has become.