Tuesday, July 24, 2007



Last week the Los Angeles Times Book Review ran my piece on J.M. Coetzee's Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005. I found the collection pretty dull--for whatever reason, the author seemed to have parked his asperity at the door--but did note some extra passion in a paean to John Huston's The Misfits. It wasn't Arthur Miller's screenplay or Marilyn Monroe's blurry charms that grabbed Coetzee's attention. It was the mustang round-up toward the end of the film:
"The horses are real," he writes, "the stuntmen are real, the actors are real; they are all, at this moment, involved in a terrible fight in which the men want to subjugate the horses to their purpose and the horses want to get away; every now and again the blonde woman screams and shouts; it all really happened; and here it is, to be relived for the ten thousandth time before our eyes. Who would dare to say it is just a story?"

With this indignant paragraph, we come full circle, back to Elizabeth Costello. That novel-as-lecture-series included a couple of long and eloquent harangues on animal rights from the protagonist. Again, the author seemed to be smuggling the essay into a narrative format. As it happens, though, those harangues had made an earlier appearance in The Lives of Animals (1999)--an actual lecture series, into which Coetzee had smuggled the feisty and fictional Costello. Clearly these hybrids are close to the author's heart. Yet the straightforward essays assembled in Inner Workings are, with a few exceptions, only fair-to-middling creations. Perhaps Elizabeth Costello should have been enlisted to write them all.
If you can wrap your brain around that last paragraph, you get a prize! Meanwhile, Coetzee's rage at the callous enlistment of those mustangs reminded me of a passage in Saul Steinberg's Reflections and Shadows. It's much lighter in tone, with a hint of whimsical envy. But the animal in question, confined along with the author to a Fascist-era internment camp in Totoreto, Italy, has also been shanghaied into a rather squalid human enterprise:
The pope gave us six lire a day as an allowance, and for his own peace of mind. Luckily I was there in May; it was warm, there was the fine spring sunshine, and already they were starting to find greens, lots of onions. I even saw a dog eating onions, a dog who lived with us and didn't know he was in a concentration camp.
Finally, a couple of passage from Mark Jerome Walters's Courtship in the Animal Kingdom. I'll be frank and admit that when I pulled this book off the shelf, I assumed it was a work of fiction with a modishly ironic title--you can practically write the thing yourself. Instead it's exactly what it says. The great challenge, as the author concedes, is to avoid relentless anthropomorphism. Animals must not be viewed as fuzzy little avatars of human behavior or Aesopian exemplars. They are what they are. But a passage like this one still cuts a little too close to the bone:
Like many animals, the chaffinch finds itself in a bind when it comes to mating. It lives life in a delicate balance between fleeing from and attacking those who come too close. In a world of potentially dangerous strangers, the impulses of fight and flight must be kept in check. Mating intensifies this dilemma. To many animals, physical contact defies the basic instinct that has helped them to survive. Even some of the most gregarious have a threshold over which strangers may not pass.
Pathetic little creatures, aren't they? Luckily I've gotten a better grip on my basic instincts. On the other hand, this next passage made me strangely uneasy:
If one were to pinpoint the most obvious difference within many species, it would probably be between male and female. Males and females of some species are so different that they have been mistakenly classified as different animals. Only by discovering some male and female ants and wasps in the act of mating can scientists tell that they belong to the same species. Among four families of deep-sea angler fish, which live two thousand feet down in pitch-black ocean depths, the females may be several thousand times larger than the males. Indeed, scientists were surprised to learn that the tiny parasitic appendages often found attached to the females were actually their mates.
Sigh. I'll stop now.

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