Lydia Millet’s new book Love in Infant Monkeys is a collection of short stories about the interaction between animals and people. While it could never replace our article that examines why God created animals in the first place, it’s packed with nuanced observations about animal behavior, human behavior, and how vast (or not-vast) the difference between the two can sometimes be.
Millet, who works for the Center for Biological Diversity and whose last book, How the Dead Dream, is a chilling portrait of animal extinction, definitely comes with an agenda. In the first story, “Sexing the Pheasant,” Millet looks at an ordinary day at the Ritchie hunting ranch in London, on what must be a routine act in that household — the shooting of a pheasant. To be exact, the story opens directly after the shooting. The bird lays on the ground, its beak spurting blood, its body growing limp, which sends Madonna into an existential meditation on stardom, the British nation’s perception of her lifestyle, tabloid coverage, and — of course — kabbalah.
The first mentions of her spiritual devotion are casual — “OK. The rabbi had been hinting at this: It was better not to kill animals. For sport, anyway” — but they quickly grow more substantial. She name-checks sefirot and questions God’s place, not in the universe, but in human dealings. The climax of the story is a striking realization about Judaism and Christianity:
She had nothing against the poor [bird], but then it rose out of the bushes and flew up and blam! — feel to Earth, like Bowie in that seventies movie. He was like Jesus in that. If Jesus was an alien. Which, let’s face it, he probably was. There was no other explanation. Huh: What if Christians were basically the UFOlogists of ancient history? And the Jews were the people who were the debunkers? They were like, “No, the Messiah hasn’t come, and if he has, where’s the proof?” Whereas the Christians were the ones who said, “Seriously, the aliens came down, and we saw them. Man, you’ve got to believe us!”
Christians were hopeful, which made them basically insane. They were hopeful about the past….Jews were more like, Come on. Be reasonable. Here we are on Earth, now just try to be nice for five minutes, would you? Can we have five lousy minutes without genocide? Sheesh.
Millet’s sense of humor is wickedly pointed. She makes jokes sparingly and purposefully; you can almost hear a little poot of a gun with a silencer as the objects of her rage crumple to the ground. The rest of the stories in the collection, if less overtly Jewish, are no less remarkable.