Even if the book might not quite be about them, Magnificence, like much of Millet's fiction, features animals prominently. When asked about her use of animals in her novels, Millet said, in an interview with Bookforum:
"We lose the subject of animals when we move out of childhood. In childhood animals are all around us, and then we throw them out. In childhood they're everywhere, the stuff of our stories and our art and our songs, of our clothes and blankets, of toys and games. Then in adulthood they're distant symbols or objects. They're rudely ejected from our domain. They're frivolous or infantile, suddenly. They're what we eat or maybe pets. Sometimes they're what we kill. But this makes no sense. This impoverishes our imaginations. When we turn away from animals as though they're only childish things, we make our world colder and more narrow. We rob ourselves of beauty and understanding. We rob ourselves of the capacity for empathy. My books are about empathy more than anything else, the idea that you don't have to be something to love it. The idea that we can love otherness, that we need to love otherness to know ourselves."
Indeed, when animals feature in contemporary fiction, they're often merely symbols (Jonathan Franzen's Freedom), issues (J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals), or monsters/magical creatures (choose any recent vampire/werewolf iteration).
Of course, animals have a rich tradition in children's literature (The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, Winnie the Pooh), but if you seek them out, there are a handful of contemporary writers who have created memorable animal characters in books for adults.
Kelly Link and Karen Russell write poignant short stories from animal perspectives, Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain is narrated by the family dog, and Benjamin Hale's The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is nothing short of epic in its life story of a chimpanzee. One of last year's most buzzed-about debuts, Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, used the tiger, both as symbol and as character, to create a truly arresting narrative about generations of a Balkan family.
Perhaps, sometimes, in searching for new ways to illuminate the human condition, writers realize that a character that's alive, yet other, is just what's called for.
This article was originally published in January 2013, and has been updated for the
November 2013 paperback release.
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