Animal Person by Alexander MacLeod is a short story collection that defies easy categorization, an exceptional yet accessible work of fiction that explores contemporary relationships and anxieties. As a character thinks in “Once Removed”: You think you are in one situation, but then it turns out to be something else (185). Seemingly mundane situations—a family funeral (“The Dead Want”), a piano recital (“The Entertainer”), visiting an elderly relative (“Once Removed”), or staying overnight in a motel (“The Closing Date”)—are transformed by startling juxtapositions and moments of brief connection. MacLeod’s versatility—in character types, settings, and resolutions—and the way he makes it all look easy, is something to behold.
All eight stories are strong, but the opening and closing stories, “Lagomorph” and “The Closing Date,” are the standouts. The O. Henry Award-winning “Lagomorph” is about the dissolution of a marriage, yet the emphasis on the family’s pet rabbit Gunther defamiliarizes, and elevates, a story told many times. It is a masterclass in how one unique element can make fiction transcendent. By the end, which is both strange and tender, Gunther has become a repository for a shared past: “Inside the mind of the oldest rabbit that has ever lived, we are a single thought—vivid and urgent and distinct—but then it passes and the rest is everything else” (25).
“The Closing Date” seems destined to become a classic. It recounts a family’s close encounter with a murderer—they have adjoining rooms in a motel—before the closing date on their new home. While chilling, it exercises considerable restraint. The voice is direct, confidently guiding readers back and forth in time: “This is the rest of it. This is what really happened, just to us, on May 31, the night before our closing, the night before we moved into our home, the night he killed the young man and made him disappear” (227). In “The Closing Date,” the line between life and death is literally just a wall, and as MacLeod traces the impact of this experience on the family, he asserts the ultimate precarity of life, that we all sleep “in temporary bedrooms that will one day be occupied by other people” (236).
Among the other stories, “What Exactly Do You Think You’re Looking At?” is the strangest, depicting an unnamed narrator’s obsession with taking—and subsequently returning—people’s luggage from LAX. This story is sad, creepy, darkly humourous, a commentary on individuality and sameness, all the people we will never meet or understand. “The Entertainer” is the most moving story, as well as a great technical achievement. By offering three different perspectives on a piano recital, that ultimately unite in a rousing crescendo, MacLeod matches form to function.
Again, unlike some collections, Animal Person does not proclaim its themes in bold strokes, but it is a deeply human book, full of compassion, and people together yet apart is a constant refrain. This is seen in “Once Removed,” where for a brief moment, a baby, a young mother, and an old woman occupy a shared moment in time, never to exist again: Outside, the day faded, but in this small room, under the fixture, she felt a bright stillness descending, as though the distant past was surging forward while the future rushed back. Ella and Amy and Greet. They paused, alone and together, surrounded by hoarded riches (206). This is not the first book to identify humanity’s contradictory state, but the craft, the way a short phrase like “Ella and Amy and Greet” clicks in the mind, is distinct. The stories suggest that between people there are countless moments of intimacy, yet even those we are closest to—spouses, siblings, cousins—will remain, to some extent, a mystery.
Animal Person is like a photo-realistic portrait with subtle flourishes. It rings true in its depiction of day-to-day life, but rather than reflecting on the accuracy of the details, sizing up how “real” the realism is, the reader comes away from the experience with feelings of awe and contemplation. The stories are contemporary, but the concerns are timeless. Personally, as a young writer, I imagine I will be returning to them many times in the years to come. Animal Person is a book that deserves to be read—and taught—widely.
By Alexander MacLeod
McClelland & Stewart, 2022, 256 p.p., $28.00
Brandon Fick grew up in Lanigan, Saskatchewan. He primarily writes fiction and has been published in Polar Expressions, in medias res, and The Society. Brandon received a B.A. Honours in English from the University of Saskatchewan, and recently defended his thesis in the U of S MFA in Writing program.