When I was young, I was obsessed with lions. For a while, it was rabbits, then it was wolves, and by the time elementary school was ending and the other girls were starting to fill out their dresses, I was into lions. I bought as many National Geographic videos featuring lions that I could find, which was about four, and then I watched them over and over. My favorite video featured a pride of about thirty lionesses who hunted and defended themselves sans men. Aiding my infatuation was the movie The Lion King, which had just come out. While I was getting too old for make-believe, I still spent my afternoons climbing the couches and swiping at imaginary foes, pretending that I was Nala, the kick-ass playmate and eventual mate of Simba. I loved her spunk, her strength, her ability to always pin Simba in a fight. I knew I would never transform into my beloved feral cat, but perhaps if I had read Colin Winnette’s ANIMAL Collection, published by Spork Press, I would have held out hope a little longer.
Each story features a different animal, the stories in alphabetical order and the animal’s name capitalized and bolded once, as though you are reading an encyclopedia entry or performing a Google search. It is a choice that could seem gimmicky, if the stories themselves weren’t so compelling. In these stories, animals often take on human characteristics, like the octopus, who “proposed a complicated sexual act,” or the quail, who tells the narrator “she’s had an affair with Raymond Carver.” Sometimes these animals stand in for archetypes—the bad boy, the other man, the woman who wants more space. As the best science fiction makes the ordinary extraordinary, allowing the reader to examine his or her world through newly strange eyes, these stories avoid cliché while exploring those fundamental relationships anew.
My daughter first brought home the IGUANA on a Sunday, which is when we usually have dinner together. He had on a jean jacket and seemed to smile at me as he passed. It’s hard to say what he was doing actually. We’re just here to get something, said my daughter. Her mother and I were at the table with the third plate. Our daughter stepped into her room for a moment. The iguana tilted its head. He stuck his tongue in his eye, said, Smells good.
In other stories, the animals are animals—a komodo dragon, a baby cheetah, vermin—and they provide a window into human dilemmas, ones often streaked with emotions both large and animalistic: sexual appetite, desire for intimacy, rage, grief. Though the emotions are large, the writing is often pared down, subdued. In one such story, the animal isn’t an animal at all, but a secret communication between brothers.
At the edge of the cliff I said,
“Good?” and he said,
“Great,” and I said,
“GIANT…” and he said,
Then we dove, we swam, and after that, my brother was my dead brother.
In all of the stories, the line between man and beast is blurred. In fact, this blurring is nowhere so profound as the single line story that appears at Y: YOU are here. What bolded beast are you, the story seems to ask, allowing the reader time to consider the question or simply race to the final story. There, the zebra ponders his stripes, the black and white lines married together on one animal, and eats a book he pretends to read. It seems a fitting conclusion for the collection, where birds and rats and killer whales and men and women wander and ponder and crash into each other, their physicality mixing and their desires blurring together. At only 68 pages, I heartily recommend spending a day wading around in the lovely zoo Winnette has created