Stories involving animals can often be a mixed blessing. At their worst, like the manipulative treacle of Marley & Me, such tales use animals as a contrivance through which human characters may better themselves. A quick glance at Love in Infant Monkeys, a story collection that revolves around the tabloid fodder of celebrities and their pets, might suggest that Lydia Millet is following that same path. Considering that the author’s previous novels were the sublimely moving How the Dead Dream and the scathing satire Oh, Pure and Radiant Heart, the choice of theme would appear a monumental step backward.
Millet, however, is a shrewd storyteller, and the stories in this collection are penetrating narratives that lay bare the complexities of life in all its folly and glory. Millet is unconcerned with easy homilies, instead crafting subtle studies of the existential crises humankind faces. That the stories are often very funny only adds to their effectiveness.
The 10 stories feature real people in surprising situations: Madonna shoots a pheasant and ponders that “she wouldn’t look that good if someone shot her.… Actually, if she was shot in the right place, then well lit, she could look excellent. Kind of a martyr concept.” David Hasselhoff’s dog walker dwells on the “shockingly few people who [are] fit for their dogs.” Thomas Edison electrocutes an elephant and “[sees] in the dying beast myriad glorious reverberations of his martyred Christ.” In the title story, a quietly heartbreaking masterpiece of deliberation, Millet inhabits the thoughts of Harry Harlow, the American psychologist who performed social isolation experiments with young rhesus monkeys to demonstrate “the value of love.”
Love in Infant Monkeys is, like Millet’s best work, an expert mix of elegant satire and understated humanity.