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Book Review: Lydia Millet's Love in Infant Monkeys

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Lydia Millet's fantastic short story collection, Love In Infant Monkeys, landed on a few critics' year-end lists in December, even though it was released in paperback without having first been published in hardback. Now I see what the fuss was all about.

This slim collection -- Millet's first, after writing six novels -- is one of the most creative uses of fiction I've read in a while, and shows the author's talent, rich prose and wide-ranging imagination at their best and maybe their oddest. Each of the stories concerns a famous person and his/her transformative engagement with one or more animals, beginning with a tale of Madonna pheasant hunting on her British estate. The pheasant lands at her feet, but once she sees the reality of the bleeding and barely breathing bird, she launches into an inner monologue filled with remorse and musings about her own fame.

This strange encounter may not sound like a grand way to begin a book of stories, but Millet is just getting started, probing into the unsettling disconnect between humans and the natural world, and limning the limits of human emotion. And in case you're wondering about the goofiness of the Madonna story's premise, yes, Millet has a wickedly absurd sense of humor, which shows up in nearly every story.

A dog walker for David Hasselhoff's dachshund winds up mulling over mortality. Jimmy Carter sees a shrink to rid himself of trauma caused by his infamous encounter with a swamp rabbit. Other celebs don't get off so easily, or with as much silliness. Thomas Edison, who once really did electrocute a rogue circus elephant, is haunted by the deed, and spends untold hours viewing a film of the beast's death -- all of which leads him to a religious conversion. Visionary physicist Nikola Tesla is befriended by a mystical hotel maid, just as he falls in love with a white pigeon. The zoologist from the Born Free books and movie is called on in Africa by a visitor who realizes that the animals around them have far more interesting, engaged lives than they do.

Millet has long been fascinated with the natural world. The Boston-born UNC grad earned an M.A. in Environmental Policy from Duke, and then worked for years as a fundraiser for the Natural Resources Defense Council, so it's no surprise that her fiction touches here on humanity's relationship with the animal world. Her most recent novel, How the Dead Dream, similarly explored the boundaries of humanity and nature, with a protagonist who, stunned by his accidental killing of a coyote, eventually winds up breaking into the habitats of various endangered species, after hours, just to be with them.

This is one of the few short story collections this reviewer has read in which all the stories -- 10 of them, here -- are captivating and, despite the unifying theme, unique. For pure reading joy and laugh-out-loud, "can you believe this?" glee, however, nothing can top "The Lady and the Dragon," instantly my favorite short story of the past few years. Based on a real-life encounter when a Komodo dragon bit Sharon's Stone's husband, Millet's tale begins when a wacked-out Indonesian businessman goes crazy for Stone. He resolves to lure her to his island lair and marry her, by buying the same Komodo dragon that had mangled her former hubby. The billionaire's aide, though, pays a Sharon Stone look-alike from Vegas to play the part, and, as they say, hilarity ensues. But Millet delivers more than hilarity; her story, in which the captive plights of the distressed impersonator and the Komodo dragon raise a variety of questions, is strangely moving -- as is the entire collection.

Millet's writing is simultaneously lush and clear, allusive but in your face. Her undertone of sadness over humanity's plunder of nature is ever-present, but she's never hectoring or self-righteous -- far from it. Her imagination, and her penetrating, nuanced take on "being a mammal," as we indeed are, is generous and passionate, as she draws her insightful connections with big doses of irony. This is a startling book in many ways, not the least of which is that such a concept works so well, and is so much fun to read. Millet's vision is tragic, compassionate, mysterious and hilarious, often all in the same paragraph, as she artfully contends with what writer Laura Miller, in her review of Infant Monkeys, called "the mystery of existence, a gift we can barely manage to appreciate even as we carelessly steal it from the rest of the earth's denizens."

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