Pets: An Anthology
Edited by Jordan Castro
Review by Matt Boyarsky
I’ve been bitten by a dog exactly once. The dog’s name was Nelly. She jumped on me in what I thought to be a gesture of playfulness before she tore into my forearm.
Nelly’s owner screamed. How could someone so good at making her happy do something horrible? “Do you need help?” she asked.
I told her I was okay, that the dog was just doing her job. A dumb thing to say.
The owner seemed the type of person to have her animals up to date on their shots, and I wasn’t the type of person who had health insurance. So I walked away, bleeding under my sleeve, because there was a sadder story waiting for Nelly, and I wasn’t in it.
Almost every story in Pets, a new anthology about animals from Tyrant Books, levels with death in some form or another. Some of them even deal in killing. When swimming through this death, the book asks in waves, calmly, What kind of person are you?
It’s a humbling reading experience. One that makes me wonder if there is any truth to the brutal pragmatisms of Instagram captions. Sayings like: “If my dog doesn’t like you, then I don’t like you,” painted in white cursive on a block of wood hung with rope. In the book, I get to see people through the eyes of animals, through the eyes of characters who become animals —their animals—for better or worse.
This is where the anthology begins with Michael W. Clune’s story, “The Measure of Love.” It follows a narrator walking around town with their claws drawn in defense of their rescue dog called Burt. Burt has learned love slowly, despite being hurt in the past, and the owner’s love of the dog grows to crush their love of people. Primal allegiances prevail when ape meets wolf, and no one is safe because the defining lines of species have dissolved.
After that dissolution, people both loved and hated appear in the book’s pages. Freeloading reptiles. Birds who shit on art in protest. A puppy who enables his friend’s addiction because he doesn’t want to kill the vibe. There are cats that refuse to die, despite their hatred for life. Characters get kidnapped, drugged, and forgotten. There are tears, teams to root for. Investment. Sadness. In cycles.
The pattern is not coincidence. When thinking of a pet in the past tense, a person can only float among the hundreds of warm stories orbiting one massive, gaseous, horrific, inevitable story. I don’t believe every writer included in the collection got on a conference call with a plan to stab readers in the heart. They have, however, taken the unspoken terms and conditions of caring for an animal and rewritten them so a reader can see the fine print for themselves.
These writers—Ann Beattie, Chelsea Hodson, Scott McClanahan, Patty Yumi Cottrell, Blake Butler, and Tao Lin, to name a few—take turns in poetry, prose, and art to tell some of these stories. Individually, each storyteller uses their space to make peace, to reckon, and possibly move on. But as a collection, Pets rewinds. It hits pause and stares until the pixels of memory blur into something else. Hard earned honesty, even when it’s lies.
A good book is one you want to give to a friend. In this anthology, art and friendship share a long, shaking hug while shedding hair and wiping snot on each other’s shoulders. During and after reading the book, you think a lot about who you’ll pass it along to.
I will lend it to my sister-in-law, whose sixteen-year-old cat I used to watch and once almost killed by starting the dryer with her in it. I will lend this book to my girlfriend, who sits through videos of cows getting shot in the head with a bolt gun to keep her vegetarian streak strong. I will lend this book to my old friend who likes reading books.
I don’t know what reaction the book will provoke from each of them, but whose fault is that? By the time you’re done reading it, Pets is a mirror most of all.
What kind of person are you?
I’ve been watching some ethically questionable reality television in my time alone. I am not causing anyone direct pain, as far as I know. But I’ve been eating meat from a can— still warm with life at the time of its packaging. And I can see the teeth marks of Nelly the bodyguard dog through the thin hair on my arm when I look real close.