Sunday, August 14, 2011

LOVIN' INFANT MONKEYS, a mini review

Lydia Millet's "Love and Infant Monkeys" to put it plainly rocks socks. I know I can be a little effusive when it comes to praise round here, but the truth is I was a less than enthusiastic fan of her novel, "Everyone's Pretty." But I enjoyed her short story "Sir Henry" that appeared in issue 1 of Electric Literature, so I thought I'd give her another go with the aforementioned "Love and Infant Monkeys" -- which includes "Sir Henry" in its pages.

I don't know if Millet is better in short form or what, but "Love and Infant Monkeys" was far more to my taste. A little bit daring in terms of using real-life subjects, i.e. celebrities and other famous persons, as primary or main characters. The strange tempo of the third-person stream of consciousness in the first story, the one in which Madonna has successfully if inadvertently killed a pheasant during a hunting outing with her then husband, Guy Ritchie and his cronies. His cronies, I think, are depicted fairly by Millet, at least what my imagination brings to mind.

The eponymous piece "Love and Infant Monkeys" is easily the most tragic of them, in terms of subject matter. It concerns the real-life experiments of an American psychologist, Harry Harlow, and the infant monkeys on whom he tested his various hypotheses. It's easy to see after a few descriptive passages of the animals' treatment, most disturbingly Harlow's "pit of despair" or in the story, Harlow recollects he's been entreated to call them "chambers" rather than "dungeons" by his assistant, a graduate student named Stephen Suomi, who noted the latter would be "bad for public opinion." Harry Harlow's dysfunctional, self-destructive nature is put on full display in "Love and Infant Monkeys" -- not used to rationalize as much as emote the purpose behind Harlow's eccentric behavior. He seems to float through the story in something akin to a alcohol-induced stupor, described early on in its pages as a "functional alcoholic." It ends with a particular strong narrative revelation about Harlow, which I won't reproduce here because you should read the story in its entirety and get the full effect.

The final story in the collection "Walking Bird" hit all the right notes for me too. Conveyed certain feelings seamlessly, touchingly. A good ending punctuation to the entire collection, and all told, the collection is one of the best I've ever read in terms of its "even" quality. These stories were made to be read side by side.


  1. I loved this, and unfortunately none of the Millett I've read since has done much for me at all. But I haven't read any other short stories, so maybe I should try that.

  2. Matt, try How the Dead Dream, or Oh Pure & Radiant Heart. If you liked the stories, I think you'll like those...

  3. @nicole: indeed, indeed


    @ Richard Nash: How the Dead Dream is definitely the next Millet I'll be reading, no question. Just has a "this is something I'd read" quality to it.