by guest blogger, Benjamin Goluboff
Our January meeting of Ryerson Reads, the environmental literature discussion group, was focused on Abby Geni’s The Last Animal (2013). Geni’s debut volume, this collection of short stories explores the troubled, sometimes contradictory relationships between humans and the natural world, specifically our interactions with animals — wild, captive, and domesticated.
Perhaps the most striking thing about these stories is Geni’s mastery of various voices and various modes of prose fiction. In “Terror Birds” Geni writes in a gritty naturalistic vein about a child growing up all but feral on an Arizona ostrich farm. In “The Girls of Apache Bryn Mawr” she spins a brisk New Yorker-ish social satire that turns alarmingly dark as the kids at a Wisconsin summer camp for Jewish girls discover that one of their counselors may harbor a kind of inner beast. And “Captivity,” possibly the finest story of the collection, is a comic tale that owes something to the Magic Realist tradition, and describes, among other things, an Octopus and his (or her) relations with the keeper of the cephalopod wing of the aquarium where they both spend their days.
One of the pleasures of Ryerson Reads is that no matter how carefully I prepare for these discussions the group’s talented readers always surprise me, taking the discussion in directions I could not have foreseen. As we discussed “Captivity,” for example, collating the story’s two intertwined plot lines about different sorts of captivity, the group engaged in a rich (and unresolved) debate about the ethics of keeping animals captive for scientific or educational purposes. Does the scientific mission of institutions like the Shedd Aquarium (where Geni’s story seems to take place) redeem those institutions from being what “Captivity” suggests they are: prison camps for animals?
One of the stories that provoked a particularly rich discussion among the Ryerson group was “Dharma at the Gate,” a story of social realism roughly in the Raymond Carver tradition. This story features an ill-starred high school romance, and a golden retriever who acts as a kind of tutelary spirit to the young woman of the pair. I believe we found the story so engaging for at least two reasons. First, the story is about social class, and like Americans in general we take a kind of illicit pleasure in talking about class because it is one of our democratic culture’s dirty secrets. Second, the story explores the unique bond that has obtained, since our species hunter-gatherer days, between people and dogs. Geni may have gone somewhat out of her depth in “Dharma at the Gate” in advancing a particular hypothesis about Homo sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris as coevolutionary partners, and then offering that hypothesis — tentatively, ambivalently — as a template with which to understand her characters’ troubled romance. What the reader is left with — opinions varied among the group — may be a startling insight into her characters’ motivations, or may be a richly readable muddle. Read “Dharma at the Gate” and decide for yourself.
The Ryerson Reads selection for March is Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008). This is a challenging academic book that endeavors to find in gardens — real and imaginary — clues to what makes us human. Harrison ranges from Epicurus to Bocaccio to the gardens of the Manhattan homeless in this learned study that is anchored in what he calls the ethics of care. Join us in March as we take up this rich and difficult book.
Ben Goluboff, professor of English at Lake Forest College and an expert in American literature, has led Ryerson Reads for the past 11 years. He will be revealing the book selections for the 2015-16 season at the Spring session, to be held on March 11th.
For more information on Ryerson Reads, visit our website.