Edited by Jordan Castro, the new anthology “ boasts several household names from alternative literature, including Tao Lin (arguably the genre’s figurehead), Sam Pink and Blake Butler — and the collection makes good on its title, with tales of pets of every stripe, including “a catatonic toy poodle, a backyard full of endangered desert tortoises, five forgotten parakeets.”
As an artifact of the alt lit movement, one can detect new rhythms of writing born from the internet and themes endemic to digital life. Broadly speaking, this writing can be distinguished by its clipped, quickened pace and a detached indifference, which permits narrators, unhinged from emotional reality, to take imaginative flights into cartoonish humor, morose meditations and gradients in between.
Though alt lit (and publisher Tyrant Books) often skews white and male, this collection demonstrates some effort toward diversity, and the selected writings vary widely in style, form and animal: a killer chihuahua, a retired racehorse, many dead chickens and, most intriguing of all, the human counterparts. Nearly all the pieces are accompanied by an illustration, also by the author, of their pet subject.
Chelsea Hodson, an essayist, writes in “Hat and Bonnie” of her dozens of desert tortoises, an endangered species whose “extinction seemed imminent,” which her family kept in their Phoenix backyard. Whenever she touched a tortoise “it would kind of shudder, as if preparing to die.”
Reading “Franny” by Patty Yumi Cottrell, I felt as if I was looking over someone’s shoulder as they scrolled through WebMD trying to identify the weird sore on their neck, but instead she lists a litany of ailments afflicting her cat, accompanied by cringeworthy medical bills she pays with a credit card “reserved solely for my cat’s medical needs.” Of course, no prognosis is ever conclusive. Our bodies remain a mystery, we only know something is wrong.
And yet, for all this variation, the grade-school prompt (write about a pet) frequently yields formulaic structures, which is evident from a cursory glance at the introductory paragraphs, which often consists of a memory of a childhood pet. Those which adhered too close to the prompt feel contrived, stunted before they could become fully formed, stand-alone stories and, over time, dull the reader’s attention. Generally, the stories tangentially related to pets were stronger because they were more imaginative.
For example, David Nutt, a master wordsmith and author of the gut-splitting novel “,” writes a species of “trickster” folklore about an encounter with a coyote. Tricked into a blind date, the protagonist, a curmudgeonly fellow who thought he was going to a costume party, lures the coyote with a granola bar fished from the pouch of his rented astronaut costume. Shortly after, he is mowed over by a crew of teenagers who medicate him loopy with “magic beans.” The coyote is less fortunate.
My favorite story in this anthology is by Sam Pink, one of my favorite nature writers. Pink’s nature is nothing grandiose. He frequently writes about squirrels and other rodents. But their fidgety behavior is somehow perfectly amenable to Pink’s distinct style of single-sentence paragraphs, humor and incredible ear for onomatopoeia.
In “Me and Duchene,” the protagonist, a thinly veiled Pink, is petsitting for his brother somewhere in the Chicago suburbs over Christmas, and the antagonist is lifted straight from a menacing, macabre “Looney Tunes”: a basement-dwelling dognapper. Pink’s cinematic vision is enhanced by his sparse style, which reads like stage directions. Take, for instance, the scene-setting preceding the first appearance of the dognapper. “Various jars of formaldehyde, vials, blood-stained tools, anatomical diagrams. The sound of dripping, heavy breathing. As things come into focus, a man sits on a throne of dog skulls.” What ensues is a game of cat and mouse and a comedy of errors, “Home Alone”-style.
Underpinning the pets conceit, this anthology is bound together by questions of companionship and the strange avenues of communication — primal, guttural, bodily — that pass between humans and animals. In a haiku, Mallory Whitten writes, “she’s been my friend for / five years and she has never / said a word to me.”
Right now, those human-pet relationships are as real and vital as ever.
“Pets: An Anthology,” edited by Jordan Castro, Tyrant Books, 224 pp., $17.95