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November 19, 2009

Book Notes - Lydia Millet ("Love in Infant Monkeys")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Lydia Millet is one of my favorite writers, and her first collection of short fiction, Love in Infant Monkeys marries celebrities with animals to great effect. These keenly written interactions of human and animal move these tales forward and offer rare insights into the human psyche as well as our celebrity-obsessed culture.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"Lydia Millet's first collection of short fiction, "Love in Infant Monkeys" (Soft Skull: 178 pp., $13.95 paper), is a superb book. Featuring 10 stories -- all of which revolve in some sense around the interaction of animals and famous people -- it asks all sorts of uncomfortable questions: about ourselves, about the world around us, about the very essence of being, of belonging, of what it means to exist.

In her own words, here is Lydia Millet's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, Love in Infant Monkeys:

Love in Infant Monkeys is a book of short stories about famous people and their relationships with particular animals. All the stories are based on nuggets of nonfiction and then spun out from there—from biography or soundbite into fleshy cultural shapes.

"Sexing the Pheasant," the first story, is about Madonna, when she shot a pheasant on her English estate and then decided to give up hunting. It's an internal monologue as she watched the bird die, her thoughts on her marriage and religion and the thorny issue of whether she would still be able to wear tailored hunting clothes if she wasn't actually hunting anymore. I'd pick "Pablo Picasso," maybe the John Cale version.

Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole.

The second story, one of my two favorites in the collection, is "Girl and Giraffe," about George Adamson, of Born Free fame, and two of the lions he raised, a brother and sister. One of them, the brother, stays half-tame and lives with Adamson and eventually becomes a brutal killer and has to be shot dead, though Adamson loves him deeply. The other, a female simply named Girl, readjusts to the wild and disappears into it and is never seen again. The setting is postcolonial Africa. I would set this to the timeless Mekons song "Waltz."

A pair of giant's hands/Sink into the sand/And tear out the family silver/To pay off the stooges we hired…You will never come home, now/You will never come home.

"Sir Henry" is about David Hasselhoff's dogwalker and his dogs. If the story was about the Hoff, primarily, you'd have to go with something iconic eighties and plasticky, maybe The Cars, "Drive" or "Let's Go" or similar. But the story is more about dogs, and the love of dogs, and the loneliness of people and perhaps of dogs too. Also it features a dying violinist who's a dog owner. So I'd pick Tchaikovsky's sad and beautiful Violin Concerto in D.

"Thomas Edison and Vasil Golakov" is about Edison's obsession with a film of Topsy the circus elephant being publicly electrocuted, and an alleged relationship between Edison and his drug-addled valet. The song for this has to be the Bryan Ferry cover of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."

They say someday you'll find/All who love are blind /When your heart's on fire/You must realize/Smoke gets in your eyes.

"Tesla and Wife," about a couple of maids and Nicola Tesla and his romantic love for a pigeon. I think "Che farò senza Eurydice," from the Gluck opera, where Orpheus searches for his lost love in the underworld and finally finds her and loses her again.

What will I do without her? What will I do without my love?

The title story "Love in Infant Monkeys," about infamous experimental psychologist Harry Harlow and the baby monkeys he took away from their mothers and isolated in cages with only monkey mothers made of wire to keep them company, would read well to Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl."

I am an orphan on God's highway/But I'll share my troubles if you go my way/I have no mother no father/No sister no brother/I am an orphan girl.

"Chomsky, Rodents" is a fictionalized anecdote about a real-life episode when my husband ran into Noam Chomsky in a town dump on Cape Cod and Chomsky was trying to give away a gerbil cage. It's a lot about mothers too, women and men and parenting, so though I'm not much of a Sinead O' Connor fan in general I think I'd recommend "Emma's Song" to go with it.

The first time I saw you/I loved you/I loved you/Your face blue/Your eyes too/Your mouth too/Your mouth too.

"Jimmy Carter's Rabbit" chronicles a fictional visit by Jimmy Carter to the office of a psychotherapist after he leaves office, in the wake of the killer swamp rabbit episode that arguably helped emasculate the President in the public eye. I'd set it to something earnest, folksy and a little nostalgic — maybe "Our Town," by Iris DeMent.

Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town/Can't you see the sun's settin' down on our town, on our town/Goodnight.

"The Lady and the Dragon," about Sharon Stone's ex-husband being bitten on the toe by a Komodo dragon—and what happened to the giant lizard afterward—I'd put with Cat Power's "The Greatest."

Once I wanted to be the greatest/No wind or waterfall could stall me/And then came the rush of the flood/The stars at night turned deep to dust.

The last, brief story in the collection, "Walking Bird," is the only one without a celebrity. A small family goes to the zoo, and suddenly at the end of the day the mother notices that all the animals have disappeared. For this I'd go back to the Mekons, as I always do in the end—say, "One X One."

All the eyes are closing/one by one/one by one.

Lydia Millet and Love in Infant Monkeys links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
animated video of a line from the book
excerpt from the book

Austin Chronicle review
Black Gate review
BOMBLog review
Bookforum.com review
Bookmarks Magazine review
Eye Weekly review
Frisbee: A Book Journal review
Globe and Mail review
The Internet Review of Books review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Quill & Quire review
The Second Pass review
The Rumpus review
Venus Zine review

Identity Theory interview with the author
Joyland interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

online "best of 2009" book lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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