This piece is a contribution to a two-part forum on Personhood. You can read the second part here.
[New Directions Publishing; 2021]
Among all writers whose work might be cited as experiments in “hybrid” writing, Thalia Field is arguably the most deserving. Her first book, Point and Line (2000), is a more or less indeterminate synthesis of fiction, essay, poetry, and drama, a fusion of genre that becomes only more pronounced in subsequent books, which also add photos and graphic illustration. Her work still seems classifiable as fiction, but to call individual pieces in her collections “stories” or her full-length work Experimental Animals (subtitled “A Reality Fiction”) a “novel” also seems inexact, if not misleading.
Without question Field’s work can also justifiably be described as “experimental,” if we understand “experiment” in fiction to be the testing of limits: How far can the effort to find alternatives to conventional practice while still retaining a place within a form’s ostensible boundaries be taken? Not only does Field challenge conceptions of conventional literary elements such as plot, character, or setting, but as well the linguistic and notational presumptions of writing itself and the customary logic of reading. In Point and Line we find arrangements of words in almost every possible configuration except sentences organized into traditional paragraphs (including one piece presented horizontally across its pages rather than vertically). Incarnate is perhaps the book that most fully crosses over into poetry (many of the reviews discussed it as “prose poetry”), while Ululu (Clown Shrapnel) most explicitly invokes theater — a performance piece that can’t really be performed.
If in these early works the author seems primarily engaged with the exploration of forms, beginning with Bird Lovers, Backyard (2010), Field’s formal variations are more directly put into the service of a single subject, treated with a fairly obvious polemical purpose. However, while all of the pieces in Bird Lover, Backyard evoke the human relationship with animals (especially birds) and often destructive interactions with the natural world, the focus on animal welfare in this book is more restrained and unobtrusive than it would become later, in some cases secondary to other, more portentous concerns, such as the legacy of American nuclear testing in the Pacific Islands in “Crossroads” or the inflated reputation of the naturalist Konrad Lorenz in “A Weedy Sonata,” which focuses on the implications in his scientific work of his documented Nazi sympathies, which have largely been ignored.
Experimental Animals (2016), an examination of the controversies surrounding vivisection in 19th century France, of course makes animal welfare the explicit subject, but the ingenuity with which this work is constructed allows it to avoid becoming too heavy-handed, although its sympathies with the anti-vivisectionists are clear enough. Moreover, the novel does not treat its ostensible antagonist, the celebrated French anatomist Claude Bernard, as a cartoon villain. While he is certainly haughty and self-absorbed and seems callous in his treatment of his wife (although we must keep in mind that this impression is created from his wife’s point of view, as her narration is the one completely fictionalized element of the novel’s discourse, the rest being an arranged collocation of historical documents), Bernard is not a wanton torturer of animals but a committed scientist who sincerely believes in the scientific importance of his work. His defense of experimentation on live animals is not the rationalization of a singularly cruel man but represents the collective ethical mindset of scientists (at least 19th century scientists), which Field subjects to an exacting critique without sentimentality or rhetorical manipulation.
Field’s latest book, Personhood, like Bird Lovers, Backyard a collection of shorter pieces (but like Experimental Animals with some graphical embellishment), is her most accessible, but also most transparently didactic, the two qualities undoubtedly related. The first four stories in the book especially make the thematic emphasis on animal rights unmistakable. Perhaps if we could say that in this book Field has adjusted her hybrid approach more to the formal procedures of the essay, then the polemical weight of these pieces might seem less heavy. But this is not really the case. While three of the selections (“Unseen,” “Liberty/Trees.” and “Glancing Backward”) might be described as poems, the rest, although as anchored in “reality” as Experimental Animals (one piece is an arrangement of transcripts in a legal proceeding), in their artifice and deployment of point of view are best regarded as fiction. The formal dexterity displayed does provide some welcome variation in a book with an otherwise monochrome thematic character, but it is less formally adventurous than either Point and Line or Bird Lover, Backyard.
The didactic tone of the book is set in the first story, “Hi Adam,” a second-person narrative that follows a visitor to an exotic bird sanctuary around the menagerie. Individual birds (such as Adam, who turns out to be female) become the characters in the story, as we are provided with the parrots’ direct speech and much of their backstories (how they came to be in the sanctuary). The appeals to sentiment are quite strong in this piece: we learn of parrots’ complex emotional lives and the damage done to them by living in captivity as a companion to humans — even when they are ostensibly “well-treated.” The second story, “Happy/That You Have the Body (The Mirror Test)” restages the court case concerning Happy the Elephant, whom an animal rights organization has tried to free from captivity in the Bronx Zoo by having her legally declared a person because she is self-aware, having passed the titular mirror test, and is entitled to release via a writ of habeas corpus. The narrator directly declares outright, abstracting from the legal briefs:
Yet doesn’t the very will to autonomous life grant a right not to be deprived of it? Or suffering at the hand of another confer a right to be relieved of it? Don’t inflicted damages give standing, and once standing, doesn’t a form of law evolve along with every animal who stands in the shadow of those laws?
“Turns Before the Curtain” and “True Crime/Nature Fakirs” shift the focus somewhat from animal rights to the insidious influence of human activity on the equilibrium of the natural environment more generally. The former is a kind of meditation on the phenomenon of “invasive species” cast in the form of a theatrical entertainment, although gradually this conceit recedes in favor of a serial recitation of the history of such invasions: tumbleweed, fungi, feral pigs, rabbits. In all of these cases human intervention is the ultimate source of disharmony, making humans the truly “invasive” species. “True Crime/Nature Fakirs” is a variation of sorts on this same theme, in this case taking the form of an absurdist crime story — complete with invitations to the reader to fill in some of the details — about home invasions by wild animals. “Is it possible they still thought they lived here” asks the narrator at one point, highlighting the artificial conception of “home” employed by the human species, one imposed on all other animals to constrict their own natural rights.
Both of these stories surely employ lively and innovative forms, which again gives them an aesthetic interest that could stand apart from the appeal of the subject, but if anything the uniformity of theme we continue to find in Personhood almost makes the aesthetic invention Fields genuinely displays start to pall, as it seems to be employed as a kind of ornamental contrivance meant to serve the theme but otherwise superfluous. The remaining pieces in the book to a degree modify the prevailing subject — although environmental degradation and its malign effect on animals is still the abiding concern — and ultimately Personhood really does little to detract from Thalia Field’s achievements as an innovative writer. But in this book the unorthodox formal devices seem less adventurous, made more “readable” by subordinating them more obviously to the communication of “message.” Certainly writers can find their way to innovative forms because a subject has in effect compelled unconventional treatment. However, here Field’s already well-established formal virtuosity at times seems imposed on a favored topic.
Which is not to deny that some of the pieces in the book work considerably, even powerfully, well within the more limited play of form and content Field has allowed in Personhood. “Liberty/Trees” is a hybrid Whitmanesque poem/reality fiction organized around the image of the famous Boston “liberty tree,” but it also ranges more widely to relate the story of liberty trees more generally (several other revolutionary-era communities planted trees in commemoration of the Boston tree), and riff on the fate of trees over the course of American history. Most notably, we are given the details behind the spread of the Dutch Elm Disease, which wiped out so many elm trees across the world, as well as the longer-term effects on the environment this blight helped to produce. Neither is the association of trees with liberty dropped from the story, and it concludes in bitter irony with a consideration of a lynching tree:
Men surround, again, a tree, to lose their wits
to drink their brains, to lean against the trunk
to drag a boy over, and beat a man [two names, to cross
out, to map]
a mob enjoys a picnic on the designated day
yelling, lemme see! at others
laughing. . . .
Perhaps “The Health of My Stream or The Most Pathetic Fallacy” best represents both the strengths and weaknesses of Personhood — strengths if you think that works of literature can bring descriptive and narrative specificity to a cause in a way that advances that cause beyond sloganeering, weaknesses if you note that in this piece Field’s formal idiosyncrasies have been smoothed out almost entirely, leaving only a fairly ordinary mode of fragmented narrative. The narrator of the story owns a property through which a stream flows. The narrator uses the stream for irrigation during the dry season, creating a luxurious, plant-strewn riverbank. Soon enough the narrator begins to observe the fish in the stream, deciding to intervene in the water current to create a more flourishing environment for them. This does not work out well, and the narrator learns about the well-being of streams and the dangers of human meddling with nature. The depiction of the ecology of river environments is vivid and engrossing, but, especially in a collection that takes up the same theme more or less repetitively, “The Health of My Stream” is also entirely predictable.
Experimental fiction (or poetry) ought to be predictable only in being unpredictable. Most of Thalia Field’s books have indeed been characterized by their aesthetic ingenuity and variety. She is, in fact a writer about whom it is justified to say that her work so blurs the distinction between forms and genres that it could be regarded simply as an integrated practice of “writing.” But Personhood suggests that her audacious verbal imagination has started to become merely the available instrument for promulgating an increasingly familiar message.