Alexander MacLeod Short Stories: Animal Person

Fans of Alexander Macleod’s short stories have been waiting for this book to come out since his last story collection Light Lifting, in 2010 (which became a Giller Prize nominee). Like in Light Lifting, the stories in Animal Person are rich enough to keep us satisfied with re-reading until the next collection, even if it takes another 12 years.

Lagomorph: I first read this story in the Autumn 2017 edition of Granta Magazine. Then it went on to win the 2019 O. Henry Prize. In his interview with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter, MacLeod states that in Lagomorph, “I was interested in the way that love operates — that love sometimes is a choice, and then sometimes a responsibility. I was interested in the way that sometimes our responsibilities slowly become our choices.

What I like about Lagomorph:

1.The rabbit is the quiet observer of the family over the years. He can’t talk, they don’t know what he’s thinking. But he’s there.

When I look back, I see this was the peak of our intensity together, a wilder period than even the sleepless newborn nights or the toilet training, and I don’t know how we survived for years on nothing but rude endurance. It was probably something automatic, the natural outcome of great forces working through us. We were like a complicated rainforest ecosystem, full of winding tendrils, lush, surging life, and steaming wet rot.

We were all just barely touching and it seemed like the minivan was always running in our driveway, its rolling side door gaping for the quickest possible turnaround, like an army helicopter.

Whenever I cut the crusts off a sandwich or allowed someone to return a perfectly untouched but perfectly prepared Tupperware container of sliced cucumbers and ranch dip, I wondered if I was loving a child or wrecking her for the future.

2.When they bring the rabbit home, they have no idea what to do with it or how to take care of it. Some of the scenes are really funny. In addition to that, the father/husband is allergic. But they keep him anyway, and eventually they can’t imagine life without him. In the end, it’s just him and the rabbit.

Our rabbit–my rabbit now, I guess–he and I are wrapped up in something I don’t completely understand. Even when I imagine that I am reading him correctly, I know that he is reading me at the same time–and doing a better job of it–picking up on all my subconscious cues and even the faintest signals I do not realize I am sending out. It’s complicated, this back-and-forth. Maybe we have been spending a little too much time together lately. Maybe I have been spending a little too much time thinking about rabbits.

I look at Gunther sometimes and wonder if he is typical–if he is like or unlike all the others of his kind, the rest of the lagomorphs that populate this world. I wonder if he has even ever seen another rabbit or if he thinks maybe I am a rabbit, too.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What Exactly Do You Think You’re Looking At?: This is one of my favourites. MacLeod was inspired by two photographs taken in the mid-1970s by the late U.S. artist Henry Wessel Jr., one of which shows an unknown man standing off to the side. Often, I imagine (whether it’s true or not) that MacLeod–as well as many other authors–take from their own lives to write their stories: things that have happened to them or someone else they know, stories and settings from the family history. I think that, by writing a story for this unknown man standing at the edge of activity, he’s created something wholly original and unexpected. I was delightfully creeped-out by this man who likes snooping through other peoples’ suitcases.

I know I am not like other people. And, most probably, I am not like you. I did not come here, to Southern California, for a vacation, and I was not drawn by the heat or the palm trees or the chance to drive by the homes of the stars. The promise of a beach day in late December could not bring me across a continent, and I have no desire to stare at the bodybuilders or the roller skaters sliding by in their tank tops. I did not come to see the cartoon mouse made real in the world or to listen to his robots singing about how it is a small world after all. You will just have to trust me on this one. I have come and gone a long way around this globe–perhaps no one has travelled farther–and I believe I am uniquely qualified to tell you: It is, most definitely, not a small world.

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

Everything Underneath: Two sisters are snorkelling in the ocean–a little bit over their heads. They’re completely absorbed in the magic of being able to see underneath them as they float at the top. Hermit crabs, fish, moving through the clear water — “as if there could be something clearer than perfectly clear.”

… all the stuff that we’re looking at for the first time, has been happening and happening and happening, in this same spot, in the same way, almost since the beginning of the whole world.

The story about the sisters is compelling enough–Kate marvels at how well they are getting along, when usually they are at odds with one another–but it’s the details that make the story sparkle. The snorkel and masks found in the end-of-season sale bin at the store; the sound a snorkel makes as you breathe – “water mixed with spit mixed with air”; the way that the ocean is always moving – “you can even see individual grains of sand moving in the current”; the panic when a shark enters their field of vision – “I can hear it in her tube too. A catch and a bad swallow. The wrong mix of air and water.”

Photo by Efrem Efre on Pexels.com

The Entertainer: Some kids enjoy piano recitals, but for most kids I think there is an element of dread about them. And, for this boy (Darcy) who knows he hasn’t mastered his piece well enough to play it in front of an audience, I can’t help but feel for him. He’s sitting there, waiting for his turn, dreading his turn, having the dread prolonged by everyone who comes before him on the program.

Right now, I am the only one who understands how bad the situation is, but in about ten minutes, my disaster is going to swallow everyone in this room.

What makes this story stand out is that it’s told from the perspective of several people in attendance. The piano recital takes place in a senior’s complex, and the audience is made up of a mixture of family members and seniors from the complex whose whisperings can sometimes be louder than intended and overheard by everyone around them. The story is narrated by Gladys Ferguson’s husband, as well as Darcy and his piano teacher.

When they sang, the kids closed their eyes and circled their hands in the air, aiming for notes they could not possibly hit. Around him, people visibly winced, and when it was over, they applauded the quiet and not what had come before.

Photo by Dalila Dalprat on Pexels.com

Once Removed: In this story, a new mother reluctantly goes to visit an elderly relative of her boyfriend’s. It’s a hot day and will take about an hour to get there on foot and by bus – she’s not looking forward to it. But once they get going, she finds it’s not so bad. And Greet is an interesting lady. She wants to tie four-month-old Ella to a chair piled up with books and feed her mashed potatoes (reminding me of the time my husband’s aunt tried feeding our baby some dulse). Soon they discover that Greet has an ulterior motive for inviting the couple over – her friend on the next floor down wants her chandelier removed and hidden so that her daughter-in-law has no opportunity to snatch it upon her death.

Sometimes, in the middle of the day, you find yourself doing things you never imagined in the mornings.

Alexander MacLeod talks about this story for The New Yorker.

Photo by Lum3n on Pexels.com

Other stories in the collection include: The Dead Want, The Ninth Concession, and The Closing Date. (These stories are equally excellent, but I was trying to cut down on the length of my post.)

At the launch for Animal Person (which I was lucky enough to attend!), Alexander talks about why he writes: “I write because I think I’m trying to make sense of experience… Sometimes my experience, sometimes our experience. And I believe that experience is resolutely resistant to language. It doesn’t want to become a story. I’m fascinated by how much work it takes to process experience and turn it into something interesting … I’m trying to pin it down as best I can.” He does a pretty good job.

Further Reading:

I read “The Closing Date”–the last story in the collection–in 2017 when it was published in the anthology Sex & Death. You can read about it here.

The Chat at the 49th Shelf: “We think we understand our neighbour’s domestic life, and maybe we even make up stories about them, or we imagine what it might be like to live “over there.” But, then, boom, a key truth is revealed, and everything looks different in the morning.

The Ottawa Review of Books:There’s a gravity and seriousness to the themes at play, but they are also genuinely fun reads. Even in their most gravely serious moments, a dark and absurd sense of humour cuts through these stories…

The Toronto Star: “The eight stories in “Animal Person” are deceptive. They are not experimental, or stylistically daring; MacLeod writes with an almost colloquial style, easy-going and easy-reading. This straightforwardness obscures just how complex these stories are, leaving them to explode within the reader’s mind and heart.

Author Spotlight at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia: “Like all art, I think the exploration of a recognizable truth is the essence of a good story.

15 thoughts on “Alexander MacLeod Short Stories: Animal Person

    • Naomi says:

      Lagomorph is fabulous. They bring a rabbit into their busy household and they don’t know anything about taking care of rabbits. Which I can relate to… we’ve had a bunny for 4 years now. 🙂

  1. Karissa says:

    This was a great collection! I remember thinking that a lot of the stories had to do with a younger generation that had left the place they were from and I thought that was interesting in light of MacLeod’s maritime upbringing (and who his father was). “Once Removed” in particular had me cringing and laughing and felt very true to life.

    • Naomi says:

      I find his stories of young parenthood are right on. There’s a story in his first collection that I still think about. I think it’s called “Wonder About Parents” and starts off with the parents picking through hair trying to get rid of lice. (Thankfully, something I’ve avoided so far!)

  2. wadholloway says:

    I’m fascinated by your and Marcie’s shall I say devotion to Macleod. I can’t imagine loving any living writer that much (no, not even Sally Rooney).

    My daughter bought the kids a rabbit. But Perth is so sandy that when it got sick of destroying the back yard it just burrowed under the fence and was gone.

    • Naomi says:

      Alexander MacLeod is actually Alistair MacLeod’s son, which is partly why his stories interest me so much. I like to compare father and son (not in any deep kind of way – just a surface-y comparison). Their stories are different, but their devotion to each word and sentence the same.

      We have a bunny! He has free reign of my daughter’s room and that end of the hallway. So far, he hasn’t been too destructive. We learned quickly what he likes to chew on and make sure it’s all picked up before he’s let out of his little house. His name is Nugget.

      • wadholloway says:

        Sorry about Alistair /Alexander. Obviously I wasn’t paying attention (Far fewer writers have writer children than footballers have footballer children – there must be less genetics involved in writing).

  3. annelogan17 says:

    It’s been a bit since I read this collection, but I really did enjoy it, the rabbit one especially. I love reading your thoughts on it as well – the snorkel one had beautiful details, you are so right about that!

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