My Life as an Animal, by Laurie Stone. Evanston, Illinois: TriQuarterly Books, October 2016. 216 pages. $17.95, paper.
My Life as an Animal, a collection of interconnected stories, offers a unified voice and perspective, producing the feel of a loosely constructed novel. While the stories focus on a few topics and themes—Laurie’s relationship with Richard, her family and life in New York City, and her pseudo-exile in Arizona—each topic addresses something within the narrator’s psyche: her connection to strangers, the aging process, and the effects of relocating to the American West. The result is a composite of Joan Didion’s work, where you can’t easily parse fact from fiction, and David Sedaris’s, with its comical explorations of love and family.
Setting is significant in this collection, its presences looming like a significant character. Laurie has lived her entire life in Manhattan. When Richard, her partner, begins work as a professor of museum studies in Arizona, she must decide between her home and the man she loves. Unwilling to give up either, Laurie exists in perpetual state of separation and detachment. As a result she seeks out meaning in objects, landscapes, and strangers. As one of her friends notes, “People are more creative in exile from their physical home.” This is true for Laurie. This motif first surfaces while Laurie travels through an archipelago of yard sales in suburban Phoenix. “I think it is how easily I fall in love with strangers and what they are willing to reveal,” she confesses during her journey from house to house. Like a postmodern flâneur, Laurie drives through the desert, studying her new neighbors in an attempt to understand America. There’s Jeff, who lives in a house with a dirt floor littered with empty pizza boxes and beer cans. He’s high on drugs and admits that he misses his wife, who’s left him. This isn’t voyeuristic. It’s confessional. Jeff needs someone to listen to him and Laurie provides witness. While the idea of the flâneur as a removed entity that floats through the world unconnected, Laurie seems driven toward the presence of others. The physical exile from Manhattan seems to stimulate her awareness of others in a way she could never experience had she stayed in New York.
The American West offers an abundance of nature and solitude. For a New Yorker used to the crowded and busy streets, this change of pace can be difficult to adjust to. City life has defined the narrator’s perception of the world—just being out West challenges Laurie in substantial ways. For example, in the story “Boulder,” she writes about the artist David Nash, who uses found objects in nature to build sculptures. “I become aware I am more interested in art made of natural materials than in nature itself,” she writes. It’s not that nature isn’t interesting, but that it becomes more interesting when a human manipulates it. That’s something she learns about herself through her pseudo-exile. “Solitary pleasure, it struck me, is seldom portrayed in literature,” Laurie admits in another story. “Aloneness is something we are supposed to be spared if we live right.” While the context of this quote focuses on love and relationships, Laurie seems to apply it to life in general. These ideals—the banality of nature and the misfortune of solitude—are sharply defined by urban values that Laurie has accumulated through her life in New York. Cities are defined by density of humans and manipulation of nature. Central Park isn’t nature. It’s a synthetic landscape, curated and maintained by the city. The West, in many places, stands in opposition. It lacks humans. It lacks curation. That’s a more accurate representation of nature. While away from the city, Laurie confronts this head-on in “Aloes,” which finds Laurie and Richard ridding their front yard of unwanted aloe plants. She compares it to a ruin like Grey Gardens. In order to enjoy nature, it must be cultivated and managed—not wild and unruly. While in exile out West, Laurie considers the ways urban life has imposed principles of “normality.” It’s fascinating how relocation often forces unconscious values to surface.
In “I Like Talking to You” Stone explores the aging process. The story begins with Laurie taking an Ambien, subsequently falling. Richard makes a crack about the incident by tying it to her age. Laurie, with her dark humor, tells Richard he could always find someone younger. “I could, couldn’t I?” He doesn’t flinch in his response, matching her darkness note-for-note. You can see why they get along so well. This motif plays out again in “Toby Dead,” where Stone writes about her mother’s death. While Laurie and Toby loved each other, they also knew how to poke and prod one another. Though dependent on Laurie, Toby still finds ways to annoy her daughter with little snide comments. So while there’s a sense of sadness and closure when Toby dies, there’s also relief. Stone bravely writes from the heart with honesty about the emotional complexities of death. The story takes a sad turn when, Laurie discovers that someone in the hospital has stolen a deco diamond ring Toby promised to her. This object was to be a memento, an heirloom, a keepsake for Laurie. This is another example of the emotional gravity placed on objects—not in a superficial way but in an affectionate way. It’s not the ring’s financial value that mattered, but its sentimental value.
My Life as an Animal feels like a keepsake, a collection of stories loaded with affection for the transformative things in life. New York defined Laurie, and Arizona made her aware. Toby made Laurie and taught her how to love, even during the most challenging of times. And with that strength, Laurie and Richard are able to co-exist in their own special way—be it together in the desert or separated by three thousand miles of America.
Jacob Singer’s writing can be found at Electric Literature, The Collagist, and Colorado Review. He recently finished writing a picaresque novel inspired by corporate conspiracies, punk rock, and video games. He is in search of a publisher and can be found on Twitter @jacobcsinger.