|. . . John Collier|
|. . . 2000-08-04|
Like many another author setting out on a masterpiece, John Collier must have begun His Monkey Wife with the worst of intentions: to plan a romance novel whose virtuous heroine is a chimpanzee betrays a less than honorable attitude toward romance novels and virtuous heroines. In Collier's typical folderols of feckless poets and rich bullies, the female human plays the luscious main dish or the Acme beartrap but never the protagonist. And his novel, like his short stories, foregrounds a comically exaggerated ideology of misogynous sexism and Anglophilic colonolialism.
But rather than a Triumph of Arch, it's Collier's only really moving work. One of the wonders of narrative is that a story, when well-written enough (and His Monkey Wife is very well written), can be so much wiser than the storyteller. Once immersed in the point of view of long-suffering Emily, we're unlikely to be able to hold her chimpdom clearly in sight except as the primal cause of her suffering.
What results is not so much a travesty of romance as one of its purest examples, complicated but essentially unbesmirched by the deadpan perversity of the humor. Our focus shifts between the extremes of expressed sincerity and implied sarcasm until the two views dissolve into a wavering, headache-inducing, but very impressive illusion of depth. By the time sex is dragged in by a prehensile foot, we are, like Mr. Fatigay, more than ready to succumb.
I think Emily Watson for the movie role, don't you?
Bestiality has never seemed particularly profound in Real Life, but, since Robert Musil's quiet Veronika was first tempted by her Saint Bernard, it's been a sure-fire booster of moral complexity in Fiction.
Sex can work heavy-duty alchemical action on even the shallowest of animal fables, as proved by the only good thing ever written by hack libertarian and Welsh-supremecist Dafydd ab Hugh, "The Coon Rolled Down and Ruptured His Larinks, A Squeezed Novel by Mr. Skunk."
Again we find the ambition-performance ratio unexpectedly reversed. In ab Hugh's story, zero-sum economics applies to intelligence: as one part of society gains IQ, another part accordingly dumbs down, which is why democracy can't work. If he'd illustrated his postulate with, say, American ethnic groups, he might have had some difficulty selling his story to a genre magazine. And so he uses the slightly less controversial hierarchy of species.
Which is how he ended up with something more sellable and richer and stranger than he could possibly have imagined. No matter how fleabit and fanatic, cute fuzzy hungry animals can't help but gain our sympathy; a taboo against "love in the streets" can't help but predispose us to cheer on an affaire de coeur between underboy and underdog, no matter how disgusting.
So, even though the story (mercifully) doesn't work as propaganda for ab Hugh's political position, his viciousness does manage to keep this Incredible Journey from falling into Disneyesque propaganda of another sort. Thus muddling doth make heroes of us all.
|. . . 2009-11-27|
Defy the Foul Fiend; or, The Misadventures of a Heart
by John Collier (1934)
At 388 pages, the longest Punch caption ever.
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
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