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Book Reviews Review: Why Dr. Seuss’s What Pet Should I Get? is the most important work of cultural criticism this year

Title
What Pet Should I Get?
Author
Dr. Seuss
Genre
Children
Publisher
Random House Books for Young Readers
Pages
48 pages,
Price
$21
Year
2015

To those cynics who suggest that the publication of a dead (or dying) author's bottom-drawer material is often nothing more than an unrepentant cash grab, I offer the following. Discovered shortly after Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) passed away in 1991, What Pet Should I Get? was likely written in the early-1950s and either purposefully shelved or forgotten. Though perhaps the world simply wasn't ready for it – until now. Rarely are the essential ideologies of our time, including those of race, class, gender, animal rights, late capitalism and "ginger pride," examined with such acuity and precision. Simply put, What Pet Should I Get? is the most important work of cultural criticism of the year.

Its rigorously structured critique begins on the cover, which depicts a single, young male figure, centralized and watched imploringly by four prospective pets: This is a man's world, his body is the locus of power, and all lesser beings are subject to his approval. The boy's gaze, however, is directed upward – to heaven, to the title, where that singular "I" not only suggests the book's female character as a secondary, liminal figure, but that the boy's will is, in many ways, a manifestation of God's.

Yet Dr. Seuss ironizes this singularity on the book's first page. Outside a pet store stands that same boy, now accompanied by his sister; both are red(ish)heads wearing yellow shirts and blue jeans and the same hopeful, expectant expression as they ogle a vaguely feline creature in the window. The girl and cat-thing are further linked with red bows, reclaimed symbols of bondage that clutch her ponytail and noose its neck, while a prototypical bowl of milk foreshadows the matriarchal insurrection that will later transform the story.

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After the collective pronoun is finally introduced – "We want a pet … Dad said we could have one" – the narrator also allows the girl a name ("Kay"). Into the shop they go, Kay trailing her brother like some deferential acolyte or lackey. Inside, our hero meets a dog. "I want him!" he screams, conflating his masculinized, proprietary desires with free-market consumerism. But meanwhile Kay has encountered another animal the colour of grape-flavoured gum: "I want THAT!" she declares in non-gender specific terms, despite suffering the crush of hegemonic masculinity from all sides: "Dad said to pick one. We can not take home two."

The absence of a mother figure here is telling: Dad is the grand arbiter of the household, the paterfamilias whose rule is law. Yet that authority rots from within, as the gluttony of the capitalist project begins to overwhelm the boy with an excess of choice. Some make of bug-eyed rodent affixes itself to him, while a miniature hyena with a lightning bolt for a tail earns Kay's attention. "MAKE UP YOUR MIND," demands a cavalcade of terrifying creatures slinking through the boy's subconscious. These beasts defy taxonomy: an orange pelican with a poodle's tail; a gleefully loping, furry moose; a possible Morlock.

Brother and sister then face each other, in profile, as equals. His expression betrays the panic of faltering power, while hers expresses glee at her blossoming agency. (Here too the book's first mention of "Mother" elides the preceding homo-Electra complex; mirroring her daughter's new-found liberation from masculine oversight, she has instructed her children to "be back by noon.") "And I could have done it," claims the boy. "I could have [exercised my inherent white male privilege and] said what pet we should get." But not so fast! Kay, realizing that she is in no way beholden to phallocentric whims, wheels away. "Do you know what she did?" the boy demands, with the typical incredulousness of emasculation. She has seen some fish, and now she wants those too.

With the patrimony of his father's directive shattering around him, in a sort of delirium the boy wonders, "How could I pick one? [...] That is what my dad said. But how could I make up that mind in my head?" The boy is bewildered and lost, and his pet fantasies descend into the surreal, culminating with a grotesque abomination (mole's face, tiger's body) so enormous that it requires, in a twist of class anxiety, independent housing that the father cannot afford.

Just as the boy approaches anarchic revelation – "What if we took one of each kind of pet?" – he retreats to the paternalistic legacy that enslaves him: "Dad would be mad. We can only have one. If we do not choose, we will end up with NONE." (The horror.)

The story ends with the boy leading the way out to the street, a pair of animalistic eyes blinking out of a basket on his head. Kay follows behind. The red-ribboned, cat-like organism peers on from the storefront vitrine.

On first glance, it seems that we have returned to a normative narrative, with the male character relegating his sister to a subservient role. But the basket is tied with red ribbon, the book's symbol of feminized community. And Kay's eyes do not follow her brother's, but focus on her new pet (whatever it might be). The suggestion is that the dominant order of misogyny and sexism has been flustered, even usurped; something new awaits.

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Even the most skeptical reader will surely admire What Pet Should I Get?, in its initial printing of one million copies, as a text on the front lines of the revolution – and as a satire of old forms, perhaps, and at the very least an attempt at parody.

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