In the Middle Ages a bestiarum vocabulum (or bestiary) was a compendium of animals both real and imagined. Its illuminated pages taught readers moral and religious lessons by using one of our most primal literary impulses—anthropomorphism, of assigning human traits to animals to reflect upon the nature of our genius and folly.
Colin Winnette's new collection of short fiction, Animal Collection (Spork Press, 2012), is a bestiary, but a bestiary for our modern times were there are no clear rights or wrongs and morals are ambiguous at best. The beasts in this collection are the complex people we know: a secretive fox, an anxious zebra, and a jean-jacketed, motorcycle-riding iguana that wants to date your daughter. The animals in Animal Collection live among us.
Like the bestiarum vocabulum, each story in the collection "features" an animal. Sometimes the animal is the protagonist or antagonist; sometimes the animal is a literal animal. The stories are not fables for they avoid being wrapped up in a tidy maxim. In "Dragon," an Italian artist receives a Komodo dragon as a pet from his niece:
The bites came daily. Arturo called his niece. Isn't he great? She said, and Arturo did not have the heart to tell her otherwise. The idea of me and the dragon is a source of great happiness to her, he writes. I would take this away, for what?
The price ends up being his life and the lesson is the sometimes tragic nature of our own selflessness. Some of the stories are character portraits: in the opening story a beaver plays the industrious and thoughtful new boyfriend of the narrator's ex. The ex pleads with her former partner to speak with the beaver on the phone.
He wants to build a home for me, a home that could be our home—mine and his. And I want that. It feels good for me to want that and to be able to admit that I want that. He says it's easy because it's natural. It's love. But it will get complicated if you let it, and that's why you should talk with him.
Winnette riffs off the common associations and beliefs about animals—the slick crocodile, the elephant who never forgets:
Never owe an elephant money. It will make a point of humiliating you. It will find you on public transportation. It will find you in a shopping mall.... And it will get away with it all because, first of all, it's an elephant, and second of all, you owe it money.
In other stories the animals operate as symbols, often with a touch of the absurd. In "Vermin," a man's house gets more and more infested with vermin as his life deteriorates. In "Ulysses Butterflies" an emotionally fragile narrator invites into his apartment butterflies that drink kerosene and explode violently. Here the prose verges on the poetic with its attention to lyric movement, metaphor, space, and silence. From the start:
Ulysses Butterflies eat kerosene and are a danger to draw in with the finger. They breathe fire. They are fantastic. They are firecrackers of the fluttering type.
I grabbed a Ulysses butterfly straight out of the air and it exploded and I lost three fingers. I found the fingers, kept them but couldn't reattach them, so I put them in a glass case with a pin through each and put that case on my shelf. Here lies my left-handedness, I thought.
The stories often move laterally toward a delicate abstraction. The character in this story deals with being emotionally withdrawn and the danger of self-destruction that comes with it. But not all of the stories are anthropomorphized character portraits or delicate poetic meditations. Some are just well-crafted fiction where animals appear as agents of chaos. In "Tarantula" a man eats a tarantula, piece by piece, on a bar bet.
So the dare escalated quickly. I felt a lot of pressure to eat the tarantula. I said I would do it, but they had to kill it first. The bartender shook his head—he wasn't a killer. My friend volunteered. He speared the tarantula with a toothpick. It kept moving, so he speared it again. It kicked, it squirmed against the toothpicks, and he speared a few more in. Each one made me think it would be less possible to do this. Finally he pulled the toothpicks out and the thing came apart. He served it to me like a fancy hors d'oeuvre.
Stories like "Tarantula" show Winnette's ability to develop his characters and allow them to (d)evolve. The characters in the story are vulnerable and sincere, and their actions accrue without overt judgment.
Winnette tells stories that highlight the primeval power of storytelling. In "X-Ray Fish," the speaker is a sort of language savant who struggles with the dual nature of possessing language's gifts and dangers, namely how this got him fired from his job as a tour guide at the zoo. Winnette writes:
This is why they hired and fired me. My words are like that of the making. When earlies were first slicing up the world with nametags, I was what they might have called a "potentiality." ... I'm doing and undoing, making and unmaking, naming and un-naming the whole thing as I go. Not to get too swell-lunged about it, but I get the sense that I'm every now and then putting the early life back in things.
And Winnette's stories are full of life for they re-kindle one of our most ancient urges—to see ourselves reflected in our world. They are bestial, as "in marked by brutality." For telling stories is a brutal thing; in stories we clothe the beast and strip down the human.