By Alexandra Leggat
Anvil Press, 169 pages, $18
When I was a child, the hardy survivalist characters in cartoons such as Fables of the Green Forest, the existential dilettantism of Snoopy and even the old anvil-dropping high jinks of Bugs Bunny seemed more relevant to me than sleeping beauty queens and princesses who pricked their fingers and grew their hair too long. By the time I decided to write seriously, highbrow animal lit appeared on my reading-list horizon: D. H. Lawrence's The Fox, a clumsy attempt at a feminist fable, not to mention Ted Hughes's limitless capacity to engrave the natural world with dark human drama, all confirmed the fact that writing about animals was a scribe's rite of passage. Even the conflicted and ethereal Sylvia Plath had her series of bee poems.
Animals are easy allegories; they are prepackaged metaphors for human behaviour, as well as a codified method of storytelling. Animals absorb human projections, which is why they can be used to illustrate devious human conduct; recall the tragic and unnatural partnership of the scorpion and the tortoise. In native American mythology, animals serve as the very narrative fabric of the universe: It is the animal world that created the human realm. Flexible and ancient, the animal is the one literary staple that transcends all societal constructions of time, age, culture and class.
It is more than likely that short-story writer Alexandra Leggat was the type of young writer who also eschewed fairy tales, who instead stuck her hands into the mouths of growling beasts while the other girls primped and kissed mirrors. The animal, human or otherwise, and its relationship to women, specifically, dominates Leggat's third collection of stories. Though Animal contains the same idiosyncratic opacity as Leggat's Meet Me in the Parking Lot, she has abandoned the cars and cities of the previous collection to enter a raw, natural world. Meet Me has a slick, strange and consistently film-noir quality, while the characters in Animal are made menacing by their unpredictability and fickleness, their ability to camouflage themselves and disappear into their environment.
Leggat's latest collection also fits within a modern short-story genre, typically written by women. Consider the marked narrative fragmentation of Amy Hempel's work, in which the only clean message is that love is owed to dogs and art is redemptive. Consider also Joy Williams's languid and rootless female characters, who do not make a move without their canine bodyguards who double as soulmates. It is no coincidence that Hempel and Williams, two of the best and most innovative U.S. writers, both women, write nearly obsessively about animals, specifically dogs.
Writing about dogs is a brave and defiant choice in this era of post-postfeminism, where women are simultaneously mocked and celebrated for their choice of nurturing animals over infants. Leggat's characters, like Hempel's and Williams's females, find solace in dogs, and all three writers seem always to return to canine as symbol, as saviour, as truth.
"Perhaps she should have bought a dog," muses Lady, an actor in Leggat's Tourniquet. Lady has chopped down her husband's favourite tree and tries to find a replacement for the beloved maple, "She needs something to leap out and greet her happily. It's been too long since anything was happy to see her."
The theme of replacement - swapping one thing to nurture with another - also dominates Animal. In Scimitar, a man replaces his wife with a pumpkin-growing obsession; in Blue Parrot, two incompatible sisters-in-law engage in a painful emotional tug of war over an ornament meant to replace both their unborn children; in Apples and Rum, a beloved husband believes that he can slip away unnoticed because he has supplied his young wife with a companion. A longing to nurture, estranged family connections and wilderness-versus-containment form the subcutaneous tissue of Animal. Pain, whether physical, mental or emotional, is also intrinsic to the bestial experience.
"I could teach a dog a thing or two about suffering," says the young narrator in Fuselage as she picks quills out of a stray dog's nose and waits for her cousin in the forest after she has committed a violent crime. Troubling and deep, these quickly unfolding stories are elliptically drawn, tense with action and dark humour. Leggat is a shape-shifting writer: The styles and narrators in this collection are ever changing, yet the stories are connected by Leggat's quirky eye for viscerally striking detail. She provides just enough imagery to draw the reader inside these very individual worlds, while also preserving a carefully constructed sense of the absurd. It is as though the author never wants the reader to become too intimate or comfortable in the primal and transient world that is both grotesque and beautiful in its brutality. As one fisherman tells another in Mandible, "Nature's fucking frightening and it'll only let you in so far."
On the cover of Animal, there is a drawing of an opossum holding an amorphous animal in its hand; whether the animal is holding its own offspring or has stolen the fetus from another animal's nest is ambiguous; whether the animal is hunting or being hunted is also unclear. Deceptively simple, like Leggat's stories, it is an arresting and atavistic image, reminiscent of a picture from an ancient book of fables. The cover of Leggat's third story collection is significant on many levels, but mostly because it highlights the way this unique and gifted writer has taken an old form and made it new again.
Ibi Kaslik is the author of the bestselling novel Skinny. Her second novel, The Angel Riots, a rock 'n' roll tragicomedy, was a finalist for this year's Trillium book award. Ibi is a cat person.