My first and still most vivid memory of a Woody Allen movie is of the scene in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) in which Gene Wilder, ruined for love of a ewe, is left penniless in the gutter, guzzling Woolite from the bottle. Here Allen does at least have the grace to make an absurd joke of his apparent conviction that it’s the man fucking a creature weaker than himself — and incapable of meaningful consent — whom the audience should pity. “And you know,” I recall my mother telling a male friend, “it really was a pretty sheep.”
Inequality, domination, and cruelty are unavoidable in stories of any kind of love between a human and an animal, which may just be to say that they are about the hazards of human love and human caring in general. Such stories also hint at how our art, like our love, often involves, even depends on, an abuse of power. Writers, in particular, enjoy a good humblebrag about their own monstrosity: How would we know there’s genius at work if no one’s getting hurt?
The Friend (Riverhead Books, $25), Sigrid Nunez’s sneaky gut punch of a novel, is a consummate example of the human-animal tale. It presents itself as a thinly fictionalized grief memoir in which an unnamed, Nunez-like writer, after the suicide of her beloved mentor, adopts his heartbroken Great Dane, Apollo. “Find the right tone and you can write about anything,” the narrator says of her most famous predecessor in canine romance, J. R. Ackerley. The Friend’s tone is dry, clear, direct — which is the surest way to carry off this sort of close-up study of anguish and attachment. More for aesthetic than for moral reasons, the narrator gives up her attempt to write about a group of traumatized women with whom she’s been volunteering to slowly, painfully, construct instead the book we’re reading. Someone is being played here, but whether the game is at the reader’s expense or the subject’s (the dead mentor’s) remains deliberately unclear. Part of the tease involves the question of whether “something bad” is going to happen to the dog.
The friend to whom the bad thing has already happened was a fiction writer who left a string of wives and lissome student lovers in his wake. He was the kind of guy who liked to complain about the decline of culture and pitied himself — once he’d aged to the point where there could be no mistaking that the teenagers in his classes were fucking him only for “the thrill of bringing an older man in a position of authority to his knees” — and forced the narrator to pity him, too. Young women, he told her, “are the most powerful people in the world.” (What could be more useful than the power to persuade men you don’t desire to fuck you anyway?) And it would be childish, he insisted, to deny that the classroom situation is inherently erotic. Herself a former student of his, the narrator doesn’t disagree, except perhaps on the issue of what teachers ought to do about that. At one point she wonders why womanizers are called wolves, when the wolf is “known for being a loyal, monogamous mate and devoted parent.” Presumably the answer is that wolves’ affections don’t extend to the lesser species they prey on.
A wolfish older writer with an abundance of self-compassion also appears in Lisa Halliday’s debut novel, Asymmetry (Simon & Schuster, $26). The first half of the book follows the love affair between Ezra Blazer, a physically fragile Pulitzer winner, and Alice, a twenty-five-year-old aspiring novelist he picks up in Central Park one summer Sunday. Alice is a charming naïf who can’t pronounce “Camus,” but she is blond and clever and excels at sex in much the same studious way you might expect her to excel at homework. Although she holds a job at a reputable publishing house, she looks and acts as though she is sixteen, precocious and old-fashioned in the manner of a young person aching to please. Outside the bedroom, the couple share wry jokes and an appreciation of baseball; he feeds her cookies, tells her what to read about the Holocaust, and slips her money for better clothes. She spends a lot of time awaiting his calls and doesn’t mind when he praises her for being a “good girl.”
Asymmetry arrives with fanfare: a Whiting Award and the sort of half-scolding, half-reassuring blurbs that announce there is more here than may at first appear. Then there’s the title, and, what’s more, the first section is called “Folly,” so we know something less arch must be in store in the second, “Madness.” Still, I might not have made it up the slope of Part 1 but for the rigorous constructedness of the book’s world and its sentences. Throughout the novel there is a sense of shimmering, almost Nabokovian artifice, only without the great man’s exuberant glee in showing the authorial hand — here, we’re never allowed to forget that the author is not a self-delighting puppet master but an anxious young woman. (A woman author, Nunez writes, quoting Edna O’Brien, “has a double dose . . . the masochism of the woman and that of the artist.”) Ezra agrees with Nunez’s narrator that you can write about anything you like — “Don’t worry about importance,” he tells his young thing, “importance comes from doing it well” — yet Alice fears that her own life may be less worthy of fictional treatment than that of the Yemeni man who sells them a hot dog. She’s grappling with the same problem bemoaned by the male author in The Friend: the “double bind,” by which “the privileged shouldn’t write about themselves. . . . But they also shouldn’t write about other groups, because that would be cultural appropriation.” Whether Alice’s concern is rooted in shame or in ambition is an open question.
In its meticulous fashion, the novel goes on to prove both Alice and Ezra right. “Madness” drops us into the elegantly rendered consciousness of Amar, an Iraqi-American economist detained at Heathrow en route to Sulaymaniyah. Amar is given a rich, detailed family history and emotional life. Oddly, the Alice we fleetingly observe weeping in the airport here is more affecting when encountered this way. Perhaps that’s because even when we are granted some access to her thoughts, it’s as though she can be seen only from the outside. Walking with Ezra on a cold day, Alice is suddenly struck by
what she supposed other people would see: a healthy young woman losing time with a decrepit old man. Or were other people more imaginative and sympathetic than she thought? Might they acknowledge that everything was still more interesting with him than without, and perhaps even that her gameness and devotion were qualities the world needed more of, not less?
The portrait of Alice that emerges in the book’s first section often reads like the work of some older man who enjoys but doesn’t respect her, or simply hasn’t given much thought to her interiority. It would be intriguing to see Manhattan from the perspective of Mariel Hemingway’s character, something Halliday seems almost willing to offer us in Part 1. As I write this, old debates about the divide between art and life, about who should tell which stories and how those stories should be read, are being revived and relitigated. The work of those we know to abuse their power in real life puts us in an awkward spot in part because we believe it’s possible to discern whether they can fully imagine another life, another consciousness. When they fail to envision the minds of their subjects, the piece doesn’t work; when it does work, it disturbs, suggesting that the author understands that other creatures are as real as he is and abuses them nonetheless. Within the artwork, of course, a bit of coercion is necessary, or at least encouraged: it’s your job to make the puny creatures live. With Amar, Halliday shows she can do that, so we know that with Alice she’s chosen not to, or at least not quite. Where one directs the imagination, she implies, is always a political choice.
In the end, the novel succeeds admirably on its own terms. By gently politicizing her book’s aesthetic asymmetry, Halliday manages to have it both ways (something Nunez also does, in slightly more cunning fashion): since her Iraqi doesn’t have to be wholly real, she’s onto a winner whether we’re convinced by him or not; if Alice and Ezra seem more tiresome than winsome, we’re reminded that she’s said so before we could; and if the juxtaposition of her May-December lovers with the less fortunate characters in the book’s second half seems jarring, so much the better to show the incommensurability of experience, especially in the twenty-first century. Readers, though, may find themselves in a less enviable position. After suffering through Part 1, I couldn’t help being moved by Part 2 — but I felt like quite the chump.
The conjuring of other minds, and the methods that have been invented to examine, care for, and occasionally control them, are central concerns for Lauren Slater in Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs That Changed Our Minds (Little, Brown, $30). Slater, a writer and psychologist, takes a skeptical yet compassionate approach to the history of psychopharmacology, one shaped by her own experience as a patient. Now in her fifties, she’s frank about her gratitude for the cocktail of medications that have kept her depression in check, allowing her to stay out of the psych ward, raise children, and write several books. She’s also a firsthand witness to the limitations and risks of the available treatments — the drugs she depends on have caused memory loss, diabetes, and other problems. All this endows Slater with both a keen sense of urgency and a balanced view: she’s not buying Big Pharma’s party line, but she cannot afford to ignore the way that depression, if left untreated, can also ravage the body.
Various facts and stories in Blue Dreams feel familiar — the hit-and-miss development of antipsychotics, MAOIs, and SSRIs; the cynical machinations of drug companies and the routine compromises of psychiatrists — yet the result is a vivid and thought-provoking synthesis. Some of the book’s most striking insights come when Slater, rejecting mainstream psychiatry’s Whiggish claims about increasingly precise diagnoses and constant drug innovation, inverts them to reveal a different form of optimism: older treatments that have fallen out of fashion, often because they’re harder to patent or to make a profit from, still offer promising avenues for exploration. It’s a jolt to realize that the substances Slater and the researchers she interviews are most hopeful about are not strange futuristic compounds but drugs many of us already know in their recreational forms, such as psilocybin, MDMA, and ketamine. A lot of these seem to work not so much by tinkering with brain chemistry as by shifting rigid patterns of thought.
It’s no coincidence that substances like MDMA are frequently combined with some form of talk therapy, which is known to be effective, regardless of the therapist’s theoretical school or training. (I have to laugh, though, when Slater cites a study that reported no difference between the progress of patients who spent up to twenty-five hours talking to experienced therapists and others who spoke to specially recruited amateurs, professors chosen for “radiant warmth,” wit, an “engaging personality style,” and a “willingness not only to draw a person out but also to listen empathically.” The point about the practical worth of certain guild qualifications may be well taken. Still, if anyone knows such a creature, one who doesn’t charge and has twenty-five hours to spare, do feel free to pass on my number.) If Slater has any discernible bias, it’s in favor of human connection, of relationship, despite the messy and unpleasant side effects — the dangerous power imbalances — that this, too, can bring. She’s a writer, after all, and has a lyrical bent, a narrative and aesthetic approach to the mind and its would-be healers. Depression, for instance, she defines as “a disorder of desire in which the world, stripped of its meaning, becomes absurd.”
Does Slater believe that pharmaceutical researchers and psychiatrists should try thinking more like novelists? Certainly she exposes the language of scientism they employ as misleading in the extreme. We still don’t know what causes mental illness — no clear evidence supports theories of “chemical imbalance” — or by what mechanism psychiatric drugs work, when they do. As Slater writes, most pharmaceutical discovery “is really done deep in dream, in vision, and proceeds more like the making of a novel than the compounding of chemicals for a clear purpose.” She sometimes betrays a wish that the industry would embrace this more-art-than-science position with greater enthusiasm and be curious about new possibilities rather than try to squeeze ever more money out of a few problematic drugs. More of them could consider the potential of hallucinogens or even, she suggests, stop seeing placebos, so hard to beat in double-blind trials, as the enemy, and instead think creatively about how their bizarre power might be harnessed to relieve suffering. A staggering number of people are now permanently on psychiatric medications whose long-term effects are largely unknown. Yet Slater seems more or less sanguine about the enormous influence chemical psychiatry wields over millions of minds. She seems to wish only that it could be wielded with a little more imagination.