by John Phipps
Throw Me to the Wolves Patrick McGuinness, Penguin Books, 2019 Animalia Jean-Baptiste del Amo, translated by Frank Wynne, Fitzcarraldo, 2019 Fox 8 George Saunders, Bloomsbury, 2018
Why are we so cruel to each other? Is it because we're taught to be?
Patrick McGuinness’ newest novel, Throw Me To the Wolves, is about Ander, a quiet policeman in southeast England, who is tasked with investigating his old teacher for murder.
Ander's partner is Gary, a cynical misanthrope who's been touched with the gift of the gab. Gary's blistering commentary on the state of the world paints it as an awful place, filled with pervs, pedos and lying politicians. Ander, meanwhile, is forced to dredge up the traumatic memories of his school days. And it's not the teacher who's been arrested that Anders remembers. It's ‘Doc’ Monk, a military-minded sadist who was unfortunately entrusted with the care of young children. As the novel unfolds in pacey, lyrical prose, the man accused of murder is increasingly revealed as the only one who stood between the boys and ‘Doc’ Monk's torturous glee.
The title comes from Diogenes: ‘When I die, throw me to the wolves. I'm used to it.’ In time it becomes more and more obvious to the two officers – but not to their superiors – that they have have the wrong man. At the same time, the public begins to get wind of the story, and the innocent teacher's reputation is shredded. Both policemen become racked with guilt and despair. And so it is a surprise to find that this novel, which abounds in reasons for the reader to despair, ends with a Rilkean cry of hope and redemption: ‘It's not too late to change everything.’
Why are we so cruel to each other? Is it because we're just animals?
Jean-Baptiste Del Amo argues for something close to this in his new novel, Animalia, translated by Frank Wynne. The story revolves around a French peasant family who become wealthy through industrial pig farming. Its first half takes place during the childhood of the family matriarch, Éléonore, who is raised by a fiercely religious and oppressive mother, amongst dying animals, dying foetuses and buckets of pig swill.
The comparisons between humans and the pigs around them are constant: Éléonore’s mother gives birth in a sty, next to a sow who will later eat her children; a man used to stitching up pigs is put to task on wounded soldiers during World War I; a soldier looks down the sight of his rifle and thinks ‘It's like an animal. It's like an animal.’
Del Amo's prose is thick, almost sclerotic, and it will annoy some readers. For a flavour:
The horizon breaks free of the snow-covered earth, as though the former brusquely gives birth to its converse, shaking off its muddy taint, then swells with an expectation that bows the sky with a purple halo, with a ribbed vault in which the stars still shimmer.
If you liked that, then Animalia has plenty of it. If you didn't, be warned: you won't find much besides.
Why are we so cruel to each other?
Fox 8, the narrator of his eponymous children's book, can't tell you. Fox 8 is an enterprising fox – a bit of dreamer, it’s true, but one who's taught himself to read and speak the ‘Yuman’ language by listening to a human mother reading ‘Storys, to her pups, with “luv”’. He's writing to his ‘reeder’ so that he can tell his story.
Why should you care about saccharine, faux- misspelled, heartstring-yanking bullshit like this? Because it's been written by George Saunders, who is probably the greatest storywriter in the English- speaking world. And because it's delightful.
One unfortunate day, Fox 8 wakes up to find that his home has been destroyed. All the trees are gone, the river is full of dirt, and the fish ‘just glansed up blank at us, like: Wow, we do not ever get what just happened’. There are cars where the foxes’ dens used to be. So Fox 8, who speaks passable Dog, asks a dog in a car for some guidance:
And I woslike: Frend, what is this plase He woslike: Par King. I woslike: What is it for At which point he took a paws to lik his but. Wile I polite lee wated.
It turns out that a mall has been built on his old home, so he and his best friend Fox 7 spend all day at the ‘Fud Cort’, accepting the scraps that are thrown to them by the people there. But outside they meet two men:
One woslike: Holy krap, Foxes! As if he had never seen a Fox before. My feeling was: Yes, yes, we are Foxes, hello frends, we have just seen the wunder that is your Mawl, we congradulate you!
Like so many of Saunders' narrators, Fox 8 is brim- full of good intentions and love for life. But life won't stop kicking him. One of the men takes off his helmet, throws it at Fox 7 and knocks him dead. Fox 8 can't bring him back to life, and he can't find his family. And even when he finds a new family of foxes, he feels sad. The story takes the form of a letter, addressed to a random person whose name Fox 8 has read on a mailbox. He wants to know why humans are so cruel:
Reed my leter, go farth, ask your felow Yumans what is up, rite bak, leeve your anser under your Berd feeder, I will come in the nite to retreeve and lern. I am sure there is some eksplanashun.
And wud luv to know it.
JOHN PHIPPS reads for an MSt in Early Modern Studies at New College. Recently he has been writing under the pen name ‘Sally Rooney’.
Art by Abigail Hodges