Love in Infant Monkeys

By Lydia MIllet

Soft Skull Press
September 2009, Paperback, 208 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59376-252-0

Love in Infant Monkeys

Reviewed by Kathryn Houghton

Lydia Millet’s first story collection, Love in Infant Monkeys, is an easy read but by no means a simplistic one. The stories, most of which are under twenty pages, grip from the first page, largely due to Millet’s understanding and convincing use of voice—she channels characters ranging from a pop star to a dog walker, a scientist to a simple everyday husband—but also because of the moments she chooses to share with her readers.

Each story, all of which are based around factual encounters between celebrities and animals, examines the relationship between human and animal, as well as between layperson and celebrity. But Millet’s writing, while stemming from reportage, can only be called creative as she incorporates her own imaginings and style to the stories, filling in details and adding interiority in order to get deeper into the often nonsensical way we treat both animals and celebrities.

In the story “Sexing the Pheasant,” Madonna mortally wounds a pheasant while hunting, and as she waits for it to die her thoughts jump around from issues of fame, to religion, to gender. Through her meditations, it soon becomes clear that, at least in that moment, she thinks more highly of the dying pheasant than she does of her husband, who feels threatened by her extreme level of fame and success but who she hopes will come put the bird out of its misery. “What were men good for,” she wonders, “if not to crush the last spark of life out of a small helpless creature?”

Millet favors subtle tension and movement in her stories, often letting the narrative circle before settling in on an image that ties those swirling threads together. In the final paragraphs of “Sexing the Pheasant” Madonna finds that while she has been out on her own, Guy and his friends have gotten drunk, and Millet uses this to pull together Madonna’s relationship with Guy and her experience of killing the pheasant: “She felt annoyed, but then a surge of forgiving. She could not blame them for their alcoholism. They were so small! All of them. Pity warmed her, a generous blossoming. It was so hard to be small!” 

Throughout the collection animals serve as lenses into the lives of humans, and the stories often leave the reader to wonder if perhaps animals have a higher degree of humanity. In no story is this clearer than in the title story, a heartbreaking tale of a researcher who studies motherly love by taking baby monkeys away from their mothers and raising them in solitude, using the monkeys’ resulting despondency as evidence for the absolute necessity of a mother’s love. His own actions are undoubtedly cruel, but then the reader learns of the researcher’s own life: of his string of failed relationships, his dying wife, his addiction to both work and alcohol, and, most importantly, a string of nightmares in which he is confronted by the suddenly anthropomorphized mothers and their overwhelming grief. But even this emotion seems far away to him, understood in the same way he understands a foreign country; he can accept this grief as existing, but he can see no way in which it relates to him.

The book is not all grave moments, however. Madonna’s ramblings certainly qualify as humor, if of an easy type, but other, weightier stories have their moments as well, such as the one-sided discussion in “Thomas Edison and Vasil Golakov” between Edison and the spirit of the elephant his technology killed:

I am Man. Man has his own destiny! … Impractical, I’m afraid. Exhumation and shipping alone … I have no time for messing about with your bones, my stubborn pachyderm … Commonality? With every breath each of us on this earth inhales a molecule from Caesar’s final respiration. And likewise a molecule from Brutus’s breath, as the traitor raised a hand to stab his noble emperor. Does that make us Caesar? Does that make us Brutus? … Children, oh, hmm … I have several myself; barely remember their names. What? You had none?

The theme of animal-human relationships runs through all the stories, but that is not the only thread that progressive stories build upon. “Chomsky, Rodents,” a touching story in which Noam Chomsky tries to find a home for an old but entirely serviceable Habitrail, is stronger in its discussion of motherhood coming after other stories that explore gender (such as “Sexing the Pheasant”) and motherhood (such as “Love in Infant Monkeys”). The stories don’t progress in any sort of strict order due to plot, but by the time the reader has reached “Walking Bird,” the book does seem to have a type of arc, and this quiet six-page story about a family watching a lame bird rounds out many of Millet’s themes. Though the mother in the story lives in the world shown in the previous stories, she has a moment of connection with the animal world, and it is with this image—not one of cruelty or indifference—that Millet chooses to leave her readers with, almost as if she is making a subtle suggestion as to what humanity truly means.