Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Animals of Christmas

"You're such beasts!"

The Random Animal was fortunate enough to be in New York City for a few days of the Holiday Season. Festive displays abounded in Midtown and Uptown, remote in distance and sentiment from the site of Occupy Wall Street encampment. Now it's occupy Skate Rink encampment. 
Tourists, many fleeing Europe's debt crisis to enter into debt of their own, had cellphones out taking pictures of every window and New York emblem. As always, there was an inexplicable line of foreigners lined up to enter Abercrombie & Fitch, which merchandises its clothes by showing buff young people not wearing any. People gathered around the high-end stores near Central Park to see where the 1% might spend their allegedly undertaxed income. I'd heard that Bergdorf Goodman had particularly elaborate displays and moved with the crowd in that general direction.
I started out near the more plebian Herald Square Macy's, which claims to be the largest store in the world. It certainly was one of the most crowded. I made the mistake of seeing the window display out of order. I was enveloped not only by humanity but by sweeping symphonic music, the sort that would give sound to the culture of Hogwarts. White, bejeweled marionettes pretended to hit drums in the window. Maybe it was the vivid blue eyeshadow and red lipstick on white or the giraffe neck in Victorian collar of one anorexic figurine that creeped me out a bit--or that marionettes never change expression or blink. Someone called the figures angels, but they looked like Tim Burton's elongated versions of Toulouse Lautrec dancers in a Snow Queen setting. Then I saw in the first window that a rocket-riding marionette--super model as Willy Wonka--was a deliverer of ornaments to a sort of space-station earth and that the display's creation involved large donations to a children's charity. O.K., it's Christmasy then.
   Up 5th Avenue, Lord & Taylor had the most conventional scenes of a 1950s type family enjoying holiday baking, decorating, and sledding. Windows also featured many holiday-inspired drawings by children (real, not marionettes), and again a charity received benefits.
   The closer one got to the Trump Tower and elite hotels, the more elaborate and elegant the displays. I guess I was expecting sort of a Dickens scene (after Tiny Tim is fed and cured), but Bergdorf Goodman presented a "Carnival of Animals" theme. The animals all paid homage to a mannequin dolled up in the glamour of the 1920s or 30s. Sometimes the glamour girl was accompanied by a male figure with an animal head, so it's "Meet my date, Sir Walrus." If the animal/men misbehave, the enchantress will turn them into an adorable white capelet. 

"I think she's wearing our cousin."
I took pictures, and achieved an ethereal effect of dissolving animal/person against the reflection of a nature that appeared real but is the heavily manicured growth of Central Park. (Actually, like everyone else I was deploying my phone camera sans polarizing filter.) You could also argue that the display proved the 1% aren't really human like the rest of us. They are the bulls and bears of Wall Street (which, along with wolves, provided the heads for mannequin in the menswear windows). Or he's a Bottom to a Titania blinded by her own hat.
"My pony won a prize!"
None of these figures moved, so this was not an opportunity to see human/animal interaction in play or to follow the erotics of Ovid's metamorphosis. Maybe these displays fused a childhood memory with something mythic, Freudian, and exclusively expensive. Another day, and other animals of Christmas will appear in The Random Animal--the extraordinary ordinary ones, the Nativity with pets that poet Elizabeth Bishop imagines in one of her works.

The New York Street scenes were all a highly textured fantasy, and whether at Bergdorf or Walmart, yule festivities bring out the desire for 3-dimensional (or 4, 5, 6, adding music, time, and light) textures with all their color, coziness, brilliance, comfort, and allure. With a decorated butter cookie, a twinkling balsam fir, a wrapped present with bow, it's the hope that the materiality of the season (much of it inexpensive or homemade) will warm to spirituality.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Mysteries of the Seal

Chief Inspector Seal

The Random Animal’s long absence has a simple explanation: alien abduction. Usually such abductions occur in compressed inter-galactic time, so that the abductee returns in seconds without any sense of time lost and with only a vague sense of having been used in various sexually-curious experiments. This the abduction felt more like staying in a dark November room with a cold and trying to meet several unexpected work deadlines.
But several mystery novels that featured animals were consumed: False Mermaid by Erin Hart and Bad Intentions by Norwegian writer Karin Fossum. Neither one is specifically focused on animals, so read them for their suspense and ambiance rather than for sustained attention to animal issues. Nonetheless, they both reveal how humans imaginatively and literally use animals to help them negotiate human dilemmas.
Erin Hart’s mysteries feature the anthropological anthropologist, Nora Gavin, who travels back and forth between her Minnesota home and the bogs of Ireland, where she solves the ancient crimes behind bodies unearthed from peat. In False Mermaid, however, the mystery is much closer: that of her beautiful actress sister, Triona, five years earlier. Nora believes she knows the perpetrator, Triona’s slickly handsome husband, but can find no proof. It also seems there was something slippery and constantly changing about her sister’s character and behavior. Like the mermaids who fascinated her, was Triona lovely one moment and dangerous another, tempting others toward destruction?
This murder is set against Nora’s Irish experiences and her interest in songs about mermaids and seals that come ashore to become human wives but then slip away again—“selkies.” In one song the mythical creature who “abandons the love of life,” disappearing to human company, is named as a very specific woman, Mary Heaney, who left behind children, Patrick and Mary. As Nora contemplates the strange history, maybe even crime, behind the ballad, her eleven-year-old niece Elizabeth lives in Seattle with her murder-suspect father, and consoles herself over her mother’s loss with a stolen book called A Selkie’s Child and by going to the bay to commune with a real seal who seems taken with her.
The novel gathers suspense with two love interests for Nora (one American, one Irish), oversexed and jealous lovers, obsessions about past violence, the use of illicit drugs, a child caught between warring relatives, and transnational chases. Seals appear and disappear as a hint that something in the universe, perhaps something benevolent, is watching. While there are intimations of supernatural presences, the problems of human passion remain the focus. The animal is more important as an emblem and possibility. There are no interjections about what happens when seals are exposed to pollution or when people turn against them because they despoil a beach. The woman/seal interchange is beguiling, but a more plausible magic is to believe that seals and Labrador retrievers are the shape changers (not always much difference in their shapes.) Think about it. When I’ve kayaked among seals (not myself turning into one), their big round heads and eyes and curious looks, not to mention the bark, recall Labs who jump in the water and hold up their heads, waiting for some stick action. The Lab-seal. 
I forget, was I a mermaid or a Pinniped?

So the seals in the novel seem soulful and tender—answering the characters’ desires to find empathy and acceptance. The myths of mermaids and selkies belong to the human fascination with metamorphosis, with the wish to take on an animal’s mysterious powers. In the tales Hart includes, the metamorphosis involves loss. The seal who becomes human must leave her old life, perhaps forever, and submit to being a wife. The woman who becomes seal returns to freedom but must abandon what was loved.  To be fully human is a compromise.
The False Mermaid has a driving plot with the allure of myth and romance. If you like forensic detail blended with Celtic romance and Irishmen who play fiddles and flutes, enjoy.
Soon—Fossum and the redemptive cat.