In this superb collection of short stories, author Gary Anderson moves adroitly from one literary form to another, breathing extraordinary life into a rich array of protagonists and supporting players.
Follow along, for example, as we trace the hilarious trail of an unfortunate Stableboy’s boy from his lowly beginning in 1751, through his ascension to Footman, and thus, in due time, to his tragic appointment with the sharpened blade of a patiently waiting guillotine.
How came this poor lad to his date with death?
It is a tale worthy of a Dickens novel, and peopled with characters both grand and base, told from the point of view of the hapless Ernst Seyfort, whose choice turns of phrase give the narrative a colorful depth:
“I should rather sleep at the hooves of a peasant jackass inflicted with a sour gastric zephyr than be so idleheaded as to try to deceive you.”
In the end, it is his angelic sister who unwittingly bears the blame for young Ernst’s ignominious fate. But how and why? This is storytelling at its finest, and it is but the opening chapter of the book.
Another chapter relates the curious circumstances surrounding a self-styled prophet from Vermont who happens upon some golden plates, wrought, supposedly by the hand of God.
The prophet’s name is Joseph — but not Smith, as you might be guessing. However, in most every other detail of this preacher’s rise to modest local fame, the resemblance is remarkable.
This Joseph — whose last name is Vasser — has his devoted wife Emma write down his translation of the golden plates’ inscription, then proceeds to sell printed copies. He calls it “Bible2.”
One day, he receives a “commandment” from God to take a second wife — which he does with great alacrity.
Trouble is, she’s the sixteen-year-old daughter of one of his flock and the wheels of vengeance are set in motion. Joseph feigns perplexion. “God (is) not without His seeming contradictions,” he declaims. “Anyone who works closely with the Almighty must come to terms with this fact sooner or later.”
It’s a cunningly wrought story that skewers the notion that a now-mighty religious sect sprang from noble and deified roots. In the end, this Joseph — who writes rough drafts of his divinely inspired manifesto in laboriously crossed out and sometimes obscene phrases — pays a pretty price for his philandering.
And then there is the choice chapter about Ray Vic, Performance Artist, who is lately enjoying fleeting fame by pureeing small animals in a blender, then drinking the resultant cocktail of gelatinous goo.
His long-term affair with his secretary — whom he regularly fires, then rehires — and a problematic relationship with his absentee — and now dead — father set the backdrop for this excellent contribution to the book.
Using a combination of traditional narrative and decidedly nontraditional intercuts of freeform fiction, the author moves this story quickly to a shocking denouement. It is at once the most disturbing — and brilliant — chapter in the collection.
There is good writing in plenty throughout the book:
“His features are soft and round, pleasant if not quite striking: a long, straight nose, plump pink lips, eyes as green as the liqueur that sits before him.”
“Canst you not see-eth that I’m more nervous than a yearling on castration day?”
“His eyes—two blank blue sparrow eggs, each in its own overwrought nest of hair— were at the same time wrathful and hopeful.”
The tales are all loosely connected to an Amazonian toad licker named John Ramos, who, at the beginning of the book, weeps at the birth of his only son.
And so, from stableboy Ernst Seyfert, to French playwright Georges d’Aubigné, to would-be prophet Joseph Vasser, to Jesus the Dog-faced Boy, to an Amazon explorer simply named Planke, to performance artist Vic Ray, and, finally, to an erudite chimpanzee named Reggie, this shadow of impending doom drives each singular story.
We are thus left to ponder the author’s question, laid out in the book’s description: are we truly more animal than human? Each reader must judge for him or herself, as the singular characters and situations recounted in the book bring ample evidence to support either side of the argument.
Five-plus stars to Animal Magnet. It is by far the most imaginative — and thoroughly engaging — work of fiction I’ve read this year.