Animal City, Animal Catastrophes – on TALKING ANIMALS by Joni Murphy

Talking Animals by Joni Murphy

The concept of TALKING ANIMALS is sold to us as a modern, urban ANIMAL FARM, but I don’t think this is a fair comparison to the author, whose work is far more elliptical and expressive and posits an entire universe absence the influence of man. The prose seeks to illuminate the souls of Alpacas who share a secret language of a hum in a world that does not hear them. The conspicuous absence of humans in the city is a notable difference, as well. Animals do not aspire to run their city as well as humans, and create rules for themselves that shift over time into tyranny. Instead, the city is a place of all animals always and forever. The reader is more reminded of the expression of an urban jungle than any anticommunist fable. The complexity of justice in this urban wilderness is profound. Mice and foxes live side by side with law and order while no doubt the fox eats mice. An activist lemur barista dates Mitchell, and a professorial dog advises the failed alpaca academic, Alfonzo, to give up the professorial dream. And the great anxiety of the city are sea animal activists, who may or may not be responsible for the destructive hurricane that tore through the city’s canyons and corridors, in an echo of the recent hurricane in our own great city, when Brooklyn flooded and the beaches were all battered to hell.

The book is beautiful, in the way that dreamlike things are always beautiful. The didacticism of the text is muted by the deep and sweeping hum of Alfonzo and Mitchell, whose ruminant minds seem to gather and chew all the old grassy knots of the problems of the world. There are long stretches of internal rumination pacing out otherwise uneventful actions. In this it is more reminiscent of Joyce’s Dublin than Orwell’s dark. The whimsy and humor permeating this text, where chickens consider crossing busy streets, and cats express their reasoning for their odd behavior, and a wealthy and popular celebrity racing horse is mayor while a hideous pig toadies for him. The whimsy of the text anchors the didacticism that exists in a steady image of delight, where names roll of tongues and scenes tumble about the physicality of the players, who are always and forever animals.

The city is clearly beloved by the author. The way New York is described with such close eye and thoughtfulness speaks to the author’s love affair with a city that is certainly not without its faults. But, the way one lives and dreams in this crowded huddled urban wilderness is celebrated in the text, even as the hideous conflicts of the place, those overtones of great injustice and imminent violence, are not ignored.

Some books demand to be reread, and this one does, but not right away. I think in a year or two, when the quarantine times pass, and the city is awake again, out of dormancy, and the political landscape of our real and human country shifts to de-animal the many minority groups that are treated worse than stray dogs by the machine of state have their moment. I could not help but think as I read how the poor and minority communities of our country are talked about as if they/we are animals. They are stereotyped, dehumanized, brutalized, and given no voice. I think the author intended us to think about that, and to see the rising tide of injustices come due.

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