My Life as an Animal
By Laurie Stone
Northwestern University Press
Reviewed by John David Harding
Have you ever been in the presence of someone who has seen, accomplished, and learned more in his or her lifetime than you have? There is something special about being in close proximity to such a person, as if, through some kind of creative osmosis, her or his brilliance might rub off on you. I experienced this feeling recently, but not with a person; rather, with a book, Laurie Stone's newest story collection, My Life as an Animal. Formulating my thoughts, I returned again and again to the book's central concerns: life and death, identity, friendship, art, love. But what seems like familiar territory at first blush is made remarkable by the main character's singular voice, which renders these common subjects in ways both surprising and heartrending.
The stories in Animal are told from the point of view of Laurie, a first-person narrator who, you might have noticed, shares a name with the author. While some of the stories in the collection are traditional length, many are as short as a paragraph. My mind immediately went to the microfiction of Lydia Davis, and the narrator anticipates this connection by referencing Davis' story "Happy Memories" in a story replete with unhappy ones. But the Davis reference is only one among many. Laurie alludes to a host of other artists and authors, including Susan Sontag, Joni Mitchell, W. G. Sebald, Gertrude Stein, and Jean-Luc Godard. These references are not made in the interest of being clever, but because each one establishes Laurie's cultural milieu and illuminates some aspect of the story or the collection as a whole.
Take, for example, the reference to the French philosopher and writer Georges Bataille, whose erotic works Laurie admires for "their lack of affect." The Bataille reference performs significant work in the book. First, it reflects the visceral lust Laurie feels for Marco, an acquaintance from the writing workshop circuit. Also, the reference provides insight into Laurie's controlled narrative style. Admiring Bataille's matter-of-fact narration—wherein the "narrator's containment allows the reader to enter the story as if the story is about the reader"—Laurie nods to the French writer as an inspiration. She writes, "The events in Bataille's stories unfold as if they were ordinary life, without apology or interpretation."
Though her stories do not replicate Bataille's hyper-erotic subject matter, Laurie adopts a similar approach to narration by offering details and events to the reader with little commentary on their greater significance. These stories allow us to make of them what we will. This is especially true of Laurie's depictions of illness and death. Three important characters in My Life as an Animal experience life-threatening medical trouble, but Laurie does not sentimentalize her grief surrounding the demise of her loved ones. This style likewise marks her portrayals of life as a writer, which is of course extraordinary, but which she describes unpretentiously. For example, she casually mentions her assignments for the Village Voice and her time at the famed artists' colony Yaddo. Whereas some writers spend a great deal of time devising a mythos about themselves and their art, Laurie inhabits the role of the writer without affectation.
Laurie's stoicism might also be understood as a byproduct of the denigration she endures at the hands of her mother. Among the book's large ensemble of characters, two characters stand out as especially significant: Laurie's partner Richard, and her mother, Toby. By turns referred to as "Toby" or simply "my mother," anecdotes about Toby are often disquieting. For example, when Laurie is preparing to marry a man at the age of nineteen, her mother expresses disapproval by saying, "Go get killed." The love-hate tension forged between Laurie and Toby underwrites their relationship's complexity. They quickly lose all resemblance to what we expect of a mother and daughter, which is to say that they seem authentic. From a narrative point of view, Toby's unpredictability brings her character to life, inspiring the reader to cringe and laugh in equal measure. Of course, the humor is tempered by Laurie's struggle to process her conflicting feelings about Toby, whose presence looms large in her life even after Toby's death. "I am glad we will not meet again," Laurie says, adding, "I wish she were alive."
By contrast, Richard might represent the yin to Laurie's yang, though to say that Richard "completes" Laurie would be a misstep, and an affront to Laurie's autonomy. Richard does, however, contribute to greater balance in Laurie's life. He accepts her—flaws and all—and the feeling is mutual. "Last night I had an insight," Richard says to Laurie. "You are on the spectrum." (Laurie elaborates, "He means the OCD spectrum.") Richard continues, "I mean, think about it: the cleaning, the organization, the ability to spot a speck of dust on the floor or a coin on the sidewalk, the willingness to rewrite and rewrite until you are satisfied with the words. I am going to be more understanding." And how does Laurie respond to this assessment? In typical fashion, with brevity: "Okay," she says. Another example of the unceremonious way in which the couple dispenses affection for one another occurs in "I Like Talking to You." When Laurie tells Richard that her life would be measly without him, he says that his life would be measly without her. When she asks him why, Richard says, "I like talking to you." Laurie replies, "I like talking to you, too." Herein lies the basis for their relationship: a deep intimacy grounded in acceptance, something Laurie could not share with her mother.
What's more, recognizing that her relationship with Richard might not last forever, Laurie meets the possibility of losing him head on. "You could find someone younger," she tells Richard. He responds, "I could, couldn't I?" "Do it soon," she says. "I'd rather have my heart broken now than later." Richard responds, "Why?" As is typical of this collection, no answer, no interpretation is given. This particular story ends on a question, and we are left speculating about Laurie's reasoning.
Though sometimes opaque, Laurie's motives are typically consistent. Case in point, a story where Richard's sister-in-law Ann lies immobilized in the hospital after experiencing a series of strokes. As the family gathers around Ann's bedside, Laurie feels restless and in the way. She reports, "I said to Richard, 'I'm going for a walk.' I had been with the family for five days. He shot me the look that says, I love you for who you are, but do you have to be her all the time?" Laurie does not respond. Of course, she has no choice but to be herself. She is who she is.
And now, I have to remind myself that Laurie is not a real person—she is a character. But there is something so authentically real about her and her thought process laid bare in these stories that I have come to think of her as a living, breathing human being. As a reader, I am glad to have met her.