[Book*hug Press; 2023]
I spent the last few weeks on the couch, sick. Without consulting my conscious mind, my body reacted with widespread inflammation, individual cells fighting the virus at the expense of my overall well-being. My temperature spiked, my sinuses swelled, and my throat ached. Four weeks after the onset of symptoms, I’m still unusually aware of my inner ears. Having a body means being vulnerable like this—to pain, illness, injury, foreign occupation, and eventually to death. A few engineers and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley are convinced that the computer will help us escape this curse, but deep down they must know that computers get viruses too. The body—human, animal, artificial—is always a liability.
As the story goes, most Western philosophers after Plato saw the body as a source of weakness, associated with the woman, the slave, the machine, the animal. The physical world is a dim reflection of the eternal forms, and the spirit will outlive the flesh. Cogito ergo sum: thinking, not feeling, defines the human condition. In her chapter on embodiment in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory, the political theorist Shatema Threadcraft argues that much feminist thought in the twentieth century has been constructed in reaction to traditional philosophy’s “somatophobia,” often by embracing the body as a topic of feminist inquiry. However, Threadcraft argues, feminists have struggled to rehabilitate the body while acknowledging its vulnerability. Feverish and coughing on the couch, I found myself cursing “embodiment.” Pure spirits probably don’t get sinus infections.
I found a literary companion to these sickly reflections in Her Body Among Animals. Written by Canadian author Paola Ferrante, this collection of short stories explores the ambiguities of the vulnerable body through ghost stories, science fiction, horror, magical realism, and dream sequences. There’s no denying, in these stories, that having a body means being vulnerable: to viruses, to heartbreak, to violence. Yet the stories also inspire hope. Both surreal and hyperreal, Her Body Among Animals illustrates the insoluble contradictions of modern life while gesturing toward the possibility of redemption.
Ferrante begins the collection with “When Foxes Die Electric,” a superb science fiction tale from the perspective of a fembot. Although the brainchild of a heterosexual couple, the robot is undeniably programmed to fulfill her (male) user’s need for sex and emotional reassurance. The robot tells readers:
Of course, I knew I wasn’t the only woman; the boyfriend lived with another one, a real woman called Sophie. Sophie had had thirty-four birthdays; Sophie used to be in engineering. She had helped the boyfriend to create me before she started her dissertation in evolutionary biology. But Sophie did not have legs that were 40 percent longer than her torso like mine; her bust was 34 inches, her waist was 30 inches and the circumference around her hips was 36 inches, as opposed to my hourglass-shaped 39 to 25 to 36.
The fembot is programmed to feel, not to think, the boyfriend tells her. Unlike Sophie, she is always ready to please: “He said he was going to turn me on. He said I was going to want this; I was made to.” Yet this perfect robot woman eventually comes to sympathize with Sophie, and the robot’s final fiery “malfunction” is a self-sacrificing act of solidarity.
Although Ferrante coyly subverts the masculinist fears typical of the fem-bot narrative, this story fundamentally conforms to the “rules” of the science fiction short story. In fact, both in its allegorical structure and its narrative mood it reminds me of “The Hunt,” a short story by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, from his recently translated short story collection The Truth and Other Stories. As in “When Foxes Die Electric,” Lem’s narrator in “The Hunt” is a robot designed for the fulfillment of the baser human desire—competitive violence rather than sex. Like Lem, Ferrante fills her science fiction stories with clever symbolism and scientific allusion, functioning both as prophecy and contemporary criticism. In both stories, our mechanical creations reveal our cultural pathologies; however, Ferrante’s story suggests the possibility of solidarity with machines, rather than the eternal Manichean struggle typical of Lem’s short stories.
Despite the talent for science fiction she demonstrates in the first story, Ferrante does not stay in any single genre for long. As the camera pans away from the boyfriend’s body in flames, it cuts to a relatable meditation on depression during graduate school in the second story. The third story, “Mermaid Girls,” is somewhere between magical realism and fantasy (and full of rather inscrutable fish humor). The internal logic of each story in the collection is distinct; each asks the reader to suspend disbelief in different ways. Some stories are in real places; others are set in imaginary landscapes. Some follow the laws of physics, while others are utterly supernatural. In many stories, the reader is never told whether the strange and mysterious events are “real” or “imagined,” if our narrator is having a mental breakdown or if the world is breaking down around them. Is the mermaid a metaphor? Are the dolls really haunted, or is the narrator haunted by a guilty conscience? Ferrante does not give the reader any neat answers; there is no logical accounting for the events given at the end, no simple key with which to decode the allegory.
These abrupt shifts between genre gave me a frustrating sense of whiplash. Yet I think it is this unconventional genre-crossing that binds the stories together into a comprehensive whole. Ferrante bends the conventions of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism to build a holistic picture of embodied experience under patriarchy, capitalism, and ecological collapse. Ferrante is not the first author to cross genres or to blend them, but I think her work across genres contributes to the central theme of the collection: the generic hybridity mirrors the fictional entanglement of humans, animals, machines, and ghosts. If each story is unique in its internal logic, the stories are nevertheless unified by a desire to reinscribe the body—the vulnerable body, often but not always the female body—with new possibilities.
As the title suggests, many of the stories collected here feature women whose bodies are entangled with those of animals. In “Cobwebs,” a woman trapped in an unfulfilling marriage finds herself transformed into a spider, her husband unable to understand the artistic aspirations of her web-weaving. Ferrante begins the story with the wry humor that characterizes the collection:
In their second year of marriage, she became a spider. Her reasons for the metamorphosis varied depending on who asked. She told her employer she needed more artistic growth and development; she told her mother she was compensating for gymnastic failures as a child. She told Michael she felt they had been growing apart and that she could now bind them together again. Literally.
To attempt to be a wife and an artist at the same time is to become monstrous, it seems. A comparison to Kafka’s Metamorphosis is obvious; both begin with their narrator transformed into a bug and follow the destructive consequences in their personal lives. Unlike Gregor Samsa, the narrator in Ferrante’s story seems to embrace the metamorphosis, her alienation consciously chosen rather than thrust upon her. Even when her husband leaves her for a non-arachnid friend, the narrator embraces her newfound freedom. However unexpectedly, arachnid anatomy provides a language for the conflict between conventional domestic life and the sacrifices often necessary for artistic creation.
Beyond the obvious theme of metamorphosis, Ferrante shares with Kafka an eye for the contradictory horror of modern life, for a reality that can only be fully illustrated through fantasy. Like Kafka’s, her best stories re-enchant modern life, infusing mystery and meaning into the banality of urban sprawl, apartment living, graduate school, and bad boyfriends. The mysterious and opaque lives of animals provide Ferrante’s narrators with resources for self-theorization, self-mythologization, and even self-protection.
The impossible choices of motherhood motivate many of Ferrante’s plots. Mothers in these stories disappear into the stars, are haunted by postpartum anxiety, or are killed by terrorists before they can raise their own daughters. Ferrante returns to science fiction in “So What if It’s Supposed to Rain,” a dystopian tale set in a not-so-distant future of ecological collapse, where humans live in protected bubbles and “The Mother,” a computerized super-intelligence, scrutinizes the parenting choices of individual mothers. For Ferrante, the impossible demands upon mothers can only be expressed in stories that blur the lines of reality.
Ferrante’s narrators acutely feel the slow-moving climate crisis, the microplastics that have consumed animal habitats, the garbage piles that float in the ocean like tropical islands, the sunburn under a Texas sun twenty years in the future. Like albatrosses and spiders and mermaids, we, too, are at existential risk. Perhaps the most intriguing exploration of our earthly vulnerability comes in the near-future story, “Among Chameleons and other Shades,” where the protagonist is pressured by her Star Trek–loving boyfriend to abandon the Earth altogether for a new SpaceX colony on Mars. As they while away the days until liftoff, though, she realizes that her boyfriend has fallen in love with her quiet and undemanding shadow. The real girl’s body—with its cellulite, freckles, and sunburn—fades away, as she wonders whether human settlement on Mars will really be free from the problems already destroying our home planet.
As I read Paola Ferrante’s stories, a few lines from the Neapolitan Quartet by Italian novelist Elena Ferrante (no relation) emerged from my memory. The novels tell the story of two girls, narrator Lenù Greco and her brilliant friend Lila Cerullo, as they move from school into marriages and careers. Lila finds herself trapped in an abusive marriage and barred from her own shoe-making business. Finally, she finds an outlet in the creative destruction of her own wedding portrait as Lenù watches:
I was soon reminded of the word Michele had used: erase . . . With the black paper, with the green and purple circles that Lila drew around certain parts of her body, with the blood-red lines with which she sliced and said she was slicing it, she completed her own self-destruction in an image, presented to the eyes of all in the space bought by the Solaras to display and sell her shoes Rafaella [Lila] Cerullo, overpowered, had lost her shape and had dissolved inside the outlines of Stefano, becoming a subsidiary emanation of him: Signora Carracci.
Eventually, Lila escapes her role as a young mafia wife and takes a degrading job in a meat-processing factory. By day, she is sexually harassed by management and destroys her body with dangerous manual labor. By night, after she washes away the dirt, sweat, and blood of the factory floor, she sits down with her new boyfriend to help him study an emerging technology: the computer. Together they diagram motherboards and computer programs into the early hours of the morning. Lila masters it, outstripping her boyfriend and eventually founding her own technology company. Against the backdrop of street fighting between Marxists and fascists in postwar Naples, she becomes convinced that the computer, rather than communist ideology, is the key to abolishing menial labor. No one, she says, should have to work in meat-processing factories. No one should have to be as physically vulnerable as she was.
In a letter to Lenù, Lila connects the abstract world of the digital to her own personal life. She writes, “You remember what we did with my wedding picture? I want to continue on that path. The day will come when I reduce myself to diagrams, I’ll become a perforated tape and you won’t find me anymore.” While resisting disembodiment is often portrayed as a feminist move, Elena Ferrante describes a feminine urge to disappear, to dissolve, to transcend the daily onslaught of violence. Lila’s alliance with the ones and zeros of the computer is a form of self-defense.
The Neapolitan Quartet is very different from Paola Ferrante’s Her Body Among Animals; it is character-driven epic, rather than a series of schematic fictional thought experiments. However, Paola Ferrante’s narrators are in sympathy with Lila: both understand the urge to dissolve into diagrams. Unavoidably, our bodies are geographies of vulnerability. We can be bruised and scorched by angry boyfriends (especially when they’re able to turn into dragons); we can be burned by the sun as we sit by the pool waiting for our spaceship to Mars; we can be mutilated by misogynistic terrorists driving vans; we can be touched against our will by men; we can be beaten up outside of school by bullies. Her Body Among Animals does not deny this vulnerability, but it does offer new forms of solidarity with the animals, machines, and ghosts that surround us.
Libby O’Neil is a writer and historian from Kansas City. She is currently a PhD candidate in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale writing a dissertation about scientific holism in the twentieth century.
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