Who’s a good dog? We humans seem to think highly of dogs who understand and care about what we want from them, says author Kirsten Bakis—but why don’t we measure ourselves by how well we can understand what they want from us? The mysterious inner life of our kingdom’s nonhuman cohabitants is a subject of ongoing fascination for Kirsten Bakis and fellow FSG author Jeff VanderMeer. In VanderMeer’s latest novel, Borne, a giant bear who preys upon a nearly ruined city muses, in human speech, “Am I a person?” And Bakis’s classic novel Lives of the Monster Dogs—recently reissued to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, with a new introduction by VanderMeer—imagines a breed of dogs who, after a century of cruel experimentation, walk and talk like humans and make themselves at home among New York’s high society.
Here Bakis and VanderMeer discuss exactly what animals think and feel and “how we are all enmeshed in a great, continuous, ever-evolving web that connects us to everything else.”
Jeff Vandermeer: Do you have a particular stance or position on animal life, animal intelligence. . .?
Kirsten Bakis: I don’t know what I would call my stance, but I do have a lot of ideas and questions about these things.
I think the horror of how we humans treat our fellow creatures, and the unimaginable scale of suffering—on factory farms, for example—is a great crime of our age. This is almost something I don’t know how to talk about, because the horror is so enormous, so obvious, and yet, as a culture, we’re only just beginning to wake up to it.
We are animal life. All beings on earth are our sisters and brothers. One thing I’m loving about Borne, by the way, is the sense it gives me—which is both creepy and beautiful—of how we are all enmeshed in a great, continuous, ever-evolving web that connects us to everything else.
Animal intelligence is an interesting concept: I wonder what we (including myself) mean exactly when we use that term. Historically, we’ve measured nonhuman intelligence by how closely we believe it conforms to the human kind. For example, a dog’s ability to sort through scents and infer what is happening or has happened, how long ago and how far away, doesn’t really count as “intelligence” in our popular imagination because it’s not something we can even conceive of being able to do. So we view it as a sort of trick or a useful biological function, but we don’t classify it as “intelligence.” Dogs who understand and seem to care about what humans want from them are considered smarter than dogs who don’t. But we don’t measure ourselves by how well we can understand what they want from us.
But I think this is typical of oppressive systems, in which one party has all the power. It’s useful, on a practical level, for us to tell ourselves that since animals don’t think in the way we do, whatever goes on in their minds has less value than what goes on in ours. And that means we can torture, kill, skin alive, hunt to extinction, and eat them as we please. Whatever is expedient for us, whatever we desire, we can do to them. That they may “think” and “feel” in some way is possible, but we don’t know for sure, and anyway it doesn’t matter. It’s not quite the way we do it, so therefore it must not matter. That’s what we tell ourselves.
It’s useful, on a practical level, for us to tell ourselves that since animals don’t think in the way we do, whatever goes on in their minds has less value than what goes on in ours.
JV: Animal behavior science has advanced a lot in the last 20 years. I think Monster Dogs holds up well, in that, yes, you have scientific underpinnings but also speculative ones. But I’m curious what your own thoughts are on how Monster Dogs holds up in that context?
KB: I’m so excited by the advancements in our understanding of nonhuman animals, and I think this progress is bringing our culture closer and closer to a day when we won’t be able to see them as unknowable others who don’t matter.
You seem like a writer who’s very interested in science, which is another thing I’m enjoying about Borne: I feel like I’m getting a glimpse into the future, or fragments of possible futures, possibly while looking through some kind psychedelic kaleidoscope that’s made out of wasps’ eyes and snake vertebrae and that’s also trying to squirm away while I’m looking through it. I would say Monster Dogs doesn’t really have scientific underpinnings in the same way. The “science” in it, I think of as kind of H.G. Wells-style technology—where there’s a giant clock with a saddle on it, and when you sit on it, it takes you back in time. I loved harder science fiction as a kid, but I remember being so excited to read Wells and see how he had just skipped over that stuff to get to (what I thought of then) as the good part: What is it like to travel in time? What does the world look like? Who do you meet? So I was more interested in the emotional reality or the psychological reality of what it might feel like to be a dog, altered by human hands, trying to live in a human world. I don’t know how to say whether it’s held up, but I know that I loved the characters and did my best to imagine myself into their experience, and I hope that still comes through.
JV: Whom do you sympathize with the most in Monster Dogs?
KB: That’s an interesting question. I guess I would have to say Ludwig, the one who’s trying to understand what and who he is, and to understand the cruel intelligence that had a part in creating him—the mind of the scientist Rank—at the same time that he’s aware he’s slowly losing his own mind.
I maybe empathize more with Cleo in that she’s more like me, but Ludwig is the character who I see as having the most heartbreaking struggle. I like Lydia, too: if I were one of the dogs, I would hope to be her. But she doesn’t need as much sympathy because she’s strong—she’s a survivor, both physically and emotionally. At the end of the book, she’s still alive and connected—she finds meaning in the world. I think Ludwig might have lost his sense of meaning by the end, although we don’t really know, because he disappears.
JV: I’m sure you’ve gotten fascinating reader responses over the years. Any favorite or less favorite interactions over the novel?
KB: I am really surprised by how many people over the years have connected with this book, and how deeply. I’m so touched by that. When it first came out, I was overwhelmed. People sent me fan letters, and it was so surreal to me that I couldn’t answer them—I felt like they must be writing to someone else. One person told me one scene had moved her because it reminded her of a last visit with a friend who died from AIDS. I wish I had responded to all of those heartfelt letters, so nowadays, I make a real effort to thank people who contact me, even if it’s just a few words to honor the fact that they took the time to reach out to me.
JV: Is there anything about your novel that remains mysterious even to you?
KB: Yes, everything about all novels is mysterious! How do they get written? Why do some work and others don’t? What causes people to feel a connection to a particular book, a particular transmission from inside someone else’s consciousness? As you know, I haven’t had a book out since Monster Dogs was published in 1997. Part of that was second novel syndrome—that thing that often seems to happen to writers especially when their first has unexpected success. It sort of paralyzes you because you think there’s no way you can live up. I began another shortly after Monster Dogs came out, but I never liked it. I felt like it was something I had to do, that I had made my bed—the beautiful bed I had been dreaming of since I was a child—and now I had to damn well lie in it, with my computer, and write. So I did, and I worked and worked, but there was always this sense of panic, and of not believing in what I was doing. I gave that failed novel to my editor three different times, and the first time he told me he thought it needed about six more weeks of work and sent it back, but I kept it for a year and a half. The second time, he said the exact same thing, and I worked on it for another year and a half. But there was no way I could fix it because it was dead. It was like trying to operate on someone whose heart isn’t beating. The third time, I said, please don’t give it back to me, and he very graciously and kindly broke up with it. It still took me years after that to completely put it aside. Partly because I was busy with other things, like raising my children. To be honest, it still calls to me—I still hope that someday I’ll get back to it. But a few years ago, once both of my kids were in school, I began writing something different—not the 28th draft of that novel, but the first draft of a new one—and I got an early fragment of it published in Tin House magazine. I don’t hate the project, so, while everything about writing is mysterious to me, I hope and believe this one will make it out into the world.
JV: What, in your imagination, happens after the final pages of Monster Dogs?
KB: That’s a good question. I think the monster dogs sink away into the past—Cleo’s past, and the collective past—and life goes on. People raise families and have jobs and worry about the future. They make plans and execute them and move forward. They remember the monster dogs, but they don’t really remember them—you can’t really hold onto something that’s gone. Last night I saw something Elissa Schappell had posted on Facebook, a video from 1973 of Marianne Faithful and David Bowie singing “I’ve Got You, Babe.” She was wearing a nun’s habit and he was wearing some kind of feather bustier. It was so beautiful and sexy and alive, and I would not exist if I hadn’t discovered David Bowie when I was fourteen, but also, none of that matters: he’s dead, he’s part of the universe now, that moment is gone (even if a grainy youtube video of it exists), other things are happening. So that’s how I imagine the world after the monster dogs have self-destructed: it just goes on, and other equally beautiful things happen; new creatures are born, new buildings go up, and life surges forward.
Kirsten Bakis attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is the recipient of a Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, the Bram Stoker Award for First Novel, and a Whiting Award. She is a resident faculty member at the Yale Writers’ Conference, teaches at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, and is an editor at Origins Journal. Lives of the Monster Dogs is her first novel.
Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning novelist and editor, and the author of the New York Times bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy—the first volume of which, Annihilation, is being made into a movie to be released by Paramount in 2017—and the coeditor with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, of The Big Book of Science Fiction. He grew up in the Fiji Islands and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida.
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