Man’s best friend
Rachel Rose dedicates her latest collection of short stories to “anyone who has ever loved a beast.”
July 16th, 2021
Rose’s characters are damaged and, in most of her stories, animals provide some relief to their miserable lives. But not always.
Review by Gene Homel
My cat insists that I read to him now and then, especially short stories, as his attention span is not all that it could be. But after reading him a couple of stories about the badly damaged people and their animals that make up Rachel Rose’s new collection The Octopus Has Three Hearts (D&M $22.95), he meowed for Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. My cat definitely didn’t care to hear about the “burlap sack of kittens” taken to a pond to be drowned.
I understood his reluctance to continue with Rachel Rose’s painful stories. The beastly humans in this book are typically society’s hurting cast-offs with few apparent prospects for recovery, and their beasts in each story are not your pampered ragdoll cat. Yet the animals – dogs, parrots, pigs, chameleons, chickens, rats and others – sometimes seem to exist to provide relationships with their humans, links that may help people cope, or at least connect, with their miseries and terrors.
Some of these folks have been damaged physically, for example, the woman stabbed in the abdomen on the street by a strange man with the resulting need for a colostomy bag in the first story, Of Rats and Men. Or the child victim on a Gulf Island whose grade-four brother “came home from school and took out his sister’s left eye with a screwdriver.”
Most are also damaged psychologically. Some are aggressive abusers of both people and drugs; some are victims of various kinds of abuse; some are both perpetrators and victims; and some are suicidal. But the key is that many have a distinctive relationship with animals that provides some opportunity for, if not grace, then a kind of bare sustenance.
Take Troll, for example. Marino is a homeless man who lives troll-like under a highway bridge in Miami, where “Americans always want to know the worst thing you’ve ever done.” His buddy has just bolted into the path of an oncoming semi to commit suicide. Marino is damaged goods, having been raped by priests, and he’s served prison time for assault and sexual interference with a minor. A doctor regularly cuts off “the decayed flesh” of his diabetic feet. But Marino develops a bond with a couple of dogs while wheeling them about in a shopping cart. A monk at a Buddhist temple with a “Mona Lisa smile” and stock Asian accent tells Marino that “maybe the doggies rescue you” from a miserable life and suicidal wishes; maybe a dog is a “Goddess of Mercy.” Passing children in a fenced-in pool, Marino utters a Catholic prayer he hasn’t said since he was a boy.
In another story, Charlie the chameleon talks to Sarah, perhaps because Sarah, a self-described “loser” “by the usual measures,” trips out on hard drugs. Her boyfriend has just died from an overdose, leaving Sarah with an assortment of her boyfriend’s snakes, scorpions, cockroaches, and poison-dart frogs. As the story’s title indicates, these are “revolting beasts.” However, a few people love them, those with a “passion for the disturbing animals that make normal people run away screaming.” Charlie doesn’t seem especially revolting, and he does seem to convince Sarah, who’s contemplating taking her leave by overdose, that she has a chameleon soul and that she should choose change. Charlie’s kiss of Sarah tips the fifty-fifty scale against her self-imposed imminent death, and the chameleon even helpfully takes a spot on the ceiling of an abortion clinic where Sarah undergoes the procedure. She realizes she has more in common with cold-blooded animals: “I’m not into the mammal-thing, marriage and soccer and baking cookies.” Charlie is not into the mammal-thing either, but he is into providing (presumably unlicensed) psychological counseling.
In You’re Home Now, Roxanne, a woman whose husband died of a heart attack and whose daughter was murdered by her own husband, experiences a chance to forgive and recreate members of her unlikeable family when her dead husband comes back as a wiener dog and her dead daughter comes back as a poodle. The murderous son-in-law reappears as a pit bull with a broken leg. “I knew these dogs were not actually human members of my family. They were obviously dogs. But sure as I was breathing, I knew the human members of my family were trapped inside these dogs…It’s called reincarnation, and it is an ancient, respectable religion.” After initially attempting to kill the pit bull, Roxanne forgives him, reimagining him as an earlier boyfriend who was kind to her daughter. Her little dog family “with lovesick eyes” carries on; fried eggs for all critters are Roxanne’s version of the dogs’ breakfast.
The plot element of drowned kittens in burlap bags returns in a story set on Honey Island (Hornby?), the same Gulf Island locale of the gouged-out eye. Jericho is a story with characters who are stage “happy hippies…grooving to the jumble of music” at a mini Woodstock. A young woman named Destiny lives in a cabin with her two boyfriends, who jealously take turns having sex with her, dodging child care for her three-year-old, and getting stoned. “You need to chill out,” one boyfriend advises Destiny. “You’re laying some heavy shit on our son.” The three-year-old runs off at the music fest, losing himself in the crowd, while Destiny revisits in her panicky thoughts her father’s criticism of what he might have called her “life style.” Her father, who was killed with his wife when they were accidentally struck by a car, “was a good man, a man who drowned kittens,” which was standard procedure on this island – no mention of animal rescue there, so probably not Salt Spring. Meanwhile Destiny is looking after a couple of kittens that delighted her child, kittens picked up by one of her boyfriends. Fortunately, the three-year-old boy is located on the music site by a lake, not drowned like a kitten though he easily could have been. A relieved Destiny realizes her life and the father of her child are “unbearable,” and prays to a nun who’d expelled her from a Catholic school “for lewd behaviour behind the chapel.” The kittens appear as bit players in the hippies’ lives, though the mother’s periodic attention to the kittens is played against her momentary neglect of her son.
Wings on Pigs concerns a white male policeman who shoots and kills an unarmed Black motorist stopped for erratic driving. The motorist’s reach for what the cop thought was a gun was really for a dog in the car which the motorist has wanted since he was young. After the fatal shooting, the cop takes the dog home, is predictably acquitted of charges, but suffers a powerful, continuing guilt about the killing and his lack of punishment and redemption. The murdered Black man, the cop believes, is his blood brother: “We share the same dog, the one I stole. Even a stolen dog can make you smile when you get up in the morning.”
Polyamory returns in the title story of Rose’s collection. Mica is a woman working as a biologist at an aquarium who lives with Phil on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and Winston on Tuesday and Thursday; Mica’s weekends may be free for her girlfriend Dash. One day, Mica’s beloved octopus Oberon slips out of his tank. Mica teaches Phil that octopuses have three hearts – “You can’t make this shit up!” After Mica and her two lovers rescue the errant octopus and return him to his tank, she tests the men’s reaction to her announcement that she is pregnant, then declares that she is after all not pregnant. “This was only a test. You both passed!” All three end the story in bed, which is like a marine tank, presumably similar to Oberon’s. “What a strange beast the three of us made, each of our hearts beating to its own particular time” — a beast with three backs and three hearts.
Despite the grade-school French interjections (“Mon Dieu”; “Ma pauvre Cherie”), Karma may be the most affecting story. Marine is a French housewife stranded in the Seattle suburbs who’s struggling with a seriously autistic child and her visiting Parisian mother. She measures her own mentality against her boy’s autism and ponders whether his disability is an inheritance from her or her husband. She brings home three chickens to raise in the garage, and harvests the eggs. After she finds that she is pregnant, and her son is rescued dangling from the roof in a possible attempt at a fatal fall, Marine considers, “There were the chickens, needing her. There was the egg inside her, taking shape.” But it seems an abortion is in the offing. Marine, her mother, and the boy share a few minutes’ “oblivion” on a toy rug of the planets. The boy “covered Mars, Maman took the sun and Marine drifted in black space.”
Perhaps in keeping with the disturbed lives of these often marginal people, their language is impoverished, so some readers may find the poverty of fresh and striking language appropriate to the characters, or not.
Despite the horrors of the characters’ lives, there is an element of sentimentality about the animals that seems to sit uneasily with the rough language and attempts at what some might consider gratuitously shocking or distasteful descriptions. (However, there’s nothing here to match, for example, D.M. Thomas’s description of the Nazi slaughter at Babi Yar in The White Hotel.) A reader may think of a couple of Ian McEwan’s story collections in the 1970s in which it seems he was attempting deliberately to shock the English bourgeoisie — those books don’t sit well compared with McEwen’s fine subsequent work.
A sentimental approach can be found in Porco Dio, a story in which a pet potbelly pig stands guard over a disturbed teen who turns into a junkie, burglar and suicide. The teen’s parents are comforted by the pig joining them in bed, “grunting with pleasure” – the pig “was the only being we’d managed to keep alive,” according to the husband. “If God were a pig life would be simpler.” Perhaps.
We know that some animals are not benign, that they can unsentimentally turn on people and damage them terribly and sometimes fatally. Not Rose’s animals, though.
Moreover, there is a formulaic sameness in many of these stories of animals that have the presence or the potential to change people’s lives, especially in the stories in which animals appear to be tangential to the stories’ ideas.
Some of the beasts appearing in these stories are not rescue animals, not emotional support for wounded humans. In Will you accept the Charges? an imprisoned young woman, who wouldn’t mind if her cell mate killed her, observes a pair of rats in her toilet. One is “swimming like mad. It can’t get out, and it can’t go down the pipe.” The other rat is futilely trying to rescue it. The young woman tries to find a stick with which to rescue the swimming rat, “but I got nothing…” The scene parallels in a sense the imprisoned woman’s relationship with a one-time friend who’s rejected both her and her collect calls from the jail.
If one recognizes, as does philosopher Peter Singer, that there’s a moral principle of equality between humans and other animals, that both have the capacity to suffer or to enjoy their lives, one might question the role that these animals seem compelled to play in the lives of Rose’s humans. Should the dogs and chameleon have sufficient equality to avoid relieving these people of their suffering? Should these animals have the right to be left alone, to reject a role as possible therapists?
Well, it’s back to Beatrix Potter for my cat, but for readers who want to peruse the lives of damaged folks and the animals that intersect with them and may sometimes even interact with them, Rachel Rose has got some tails for you. 9781771622882
Gene Homel has been a faculty member at universities, colleges and institutes since 1974.
–Ed. Note: An edited version of this review will appear in the Autumn 2021 issue of BC BookWorld.