Thursday 1 July 2010

Review: Lydia Millet's Love in Infant Monkeys

Just finished reading Lydia Millet's Love in Infant Monkeys, but not before a toddler of a friend who was visiting had stolen a page, from the story “Girl and Giraffe,” sheered uncannily vertically between the binding and the text. No syllables separated, no letters rent. Just besmirched whiteness. Her mother hastened to tape the page back into place, so quickly in fact that I did not get a good glance at exactly how the rip might have meandered. Conversation taken up again, toddler hands onto other stuff. I was rereading the story some time later. My finger felt less resistance on part of the page, and I looked more closely. Something was stuck there, and it seemed to go a bit further up, and further. All the way to the top of the page, over the top, and back down. Ah. The repair. The rip. Both so exquisitely done. Though there was the little matter of the section of the page top exactly the width of the plastic strip, ever so slightly bent backwards under the pressure of the mending tape.

Two of the stories in Millet’s collection demonstrate perfectly the deft psychological repair work humans are capable of and the price paid to be unable to perceive the original wrong. Not since the mad dog coming through town in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has a canine as effectively symbolically bodied forth a human psyche as does Sir Henry in the story named after him. It is an incredibly astute story of resentment and taped-up vulnerability. In “Jimmy Carter’s Rabbit,” a killer swamp rabbit that Carter had just missed cracking on the head with an oar years earlier, is the impetus behind Carter’s consultation of a psychologist, or so this childhood friend whom Carter has not seen in fifty years believes – “Because no one knocks on a psychologist’s door to sell Girl Scout cookies”. But the therapist of the swank Atlanta office uses bottles and bottles of substantive tape to cope with, well, either the shame about his past, or perhaps the desire to be able to feel shame about his past.

The hendiadysally titled “Chomsky, Rodents” looks at the problem of other minds in the context of the visceral aspects of mothering. A mother of an infant in a baby carrier argues with Noam Chomsky at the town dump about the feelings and thoughts involved in mothering. “Love in Infant Monkeys” is also about mothers and infant attachment, as understood and researched by the psychologist Harry Harlow. When Harry Harlow goes to a departmental party, I wanted to hear what he and the psychologist “Suomi,” whose real-life counterpart still researches mothering styles of rhesus monkeys on the emotional development of their babies, would have to say to each other in Millet’s fictive world. The chance to talk with Suomi is, after all, the reason Harlow goes to the party. But perhaps the point is that, no matter what the scientists talk and write about, the content of Harlow’s recurring nightmare says the most important things about love in infant monkeys and love in mother monkeys, and perhaps even about love in general. It is interesting to note here that apparently the real-life Harlow insisted on using the term “love” when other scientists preferred the term “attachment” in the context of this research.

The philosophical “Girl and Giraffe” is a masterpiece. The narrator of the story provides irreverent audience to George Adamson’s stories about the lions he had raised from nine months old, Girl and Boy. Experiencing a “midlife crisis” (p. 32), the narrator decides to find the hero of his childhood, the star of the television program Born Free. What he finds is “An old alcoholic, he thought angrily, with poor hygiene – that was all” (p. 31). There are lessons here, I think, about why we listen to stories and why we seek out our childhood heroes. The depth of Millet’s treatment of the relationship between the animal and human worlds is particularly impressive here. She writes, “Boy remained close to Adamson all his life, often in camp, between two worlds. Though he made forays into the wild, he did not vanish within it. And on one occasion, hanging around camp while people were visiting, he stuck his head into a jeep and bit the arm of a seven-year-old boy” (p. 24). But it is the story of Girl and the giraffe foal that will have you thinking for some days to come, about how our “restless, churning efforts to achieve knowledge” (p. 34) prevent us from experiencing life as a reprieve.

Millet, Lydia. (2009). Love in infant monkeys. New York: Soft Skull Press.


Livia Blackburne said...

What a great blog! I run a similar one on neuroscience and fiction, so I was very excited to discover this. I look forward to reading more of your articles.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Livia, for getting in touch, and for letting us know about your blog A brain scientist's take on writing, to which I have now given a link in our site. I also look forward to reading more of what you write.

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