From Animal Farm to Watership Down, a small yet impactful group of novels has explored the ironies and ideals of being human, by filtering those qualities through the unlikely lens of talking animals. These works by George Orwell, Richard Adams, and others have been unique, but their basic conceits are similar: Although many people view animals as lesser beings, the act of imbuing them with the sentient awareness and social dynamics of Homo sapiens can give us an eye-opening level of disconnect. Animals who act and speak like humans is such an absurd premise, it allows us to poke satirical fun at ourselves — or even recast our flawed heroism in a revealing new light. Nick McDonell's new novel. The Council of Animals, does a little bit of both. And it does so with both horror and heart.
The story takes place in an indeterminate future, decades after humans have caused an event called The Calamity. People are nearly extinct. They live in scattered settlements, lacking the technology that enabled their self-destruction. The fate of these survivors is now in the hands — er, paws — of the animals. At the start of the book, representatives of the various animal species have convened to take a vote on what they're going to do about their human problem. Their fear is that humans, as has always been their pattern, will regroup, rearm themselves, and seize supremacy over the Earth once again. And in doing so, they'll relegate all animals to either domestic playthings or sources of exploitation. Naturally, the infighting and betrayals and alliances among these voters mirror the pettiness and partisanship of which humans have been eternally guilty. As the worlds of the animals and the humans begins to converge, their intertwined destinies crystallize in an unlikely — and potentially catastrophic — friendship.
McDonell is best known for Twelve, the precociously grim novel he wrote when he was 17. It earned him widespread acclaim and the instant tag of wunderkind. From there he graduated to writing sobering nonfiction books on topics such as war in the Middle East and nomadic cultures around the globe. Now in his late 30s, it's as if he's regressing by penning a short tale about talking animals. But don't be fooled by first impressions. Sure, The Council of Animals is a post-apocalyptic fantasy populated by, among other creatures, a pensive bear and a pragmatic cat. It's far from juvenile, however. Depending on how you read it, The Council of Animals is either wholly universal or wholly ambiguous in terms of its intended audience. Is it a whimsical kids' book that smuggles in dire adult themes? Or is it a novel with dire adult themes masquerading as a whismical kids' book? After all, it's full of the qualities of young people's literature: brevity, interior illustrations, nursery rhyme-like lyrics, the occasional use of cartoonish fonts.
The book's overall effect, though, beautifully obliterates pigeonholes. The voices of the characters range from charmingly colloquial — in an almost Disney sort of way — to nearly Shakespearean in gravity. And the black-and-white illustrations, which are rendered in haunting sketchiness by artist Steven Tabbutt, don't restate the text as much as they punch up the story's flashpoints. In one such image, the bear holds a human skull and gazes into its empty sockets as she ponders her own nature and identity. The reference to Hamlet seems almost incidental; instead, it's less about mortality and more about empathy. Seeing oneself in another, McDonell and Tabbutt telegraph to the reader, might be what makes humans truly human. And if we can imagine an animal being better at that, what does that say about us?
The issues McDonell explores in his ostensibly lightweight fable are heavy and many. Power corrupts, but it's tied up in cycles of dominance and oppression. Forgiveness heals, but the larger the scale, the harder it becomes. Every race has a right to exist, but that right is too often a matter of political or academic debate to another race. The echoes of Animal Farm are many, but here, the main target of social critique is far larger than totalitarianism. "Humans' only saving grace," he writes, "is that they are good scholars" — and it's a cheeky bit of meta-commentary as well as a stinging indictment of humanity's role, or lack thereof, in the survival of the entire planet.
The narrative tradition of talking animals is as old as storytelling itself, of course, and he turns that archetype on its head. In a contemporary literary landscape overcrowded with stories about the power of storytelling, McDonell pulls off something better: a story that celebrates storytelling while jabbing the hubris at its core. He makes animals appear more human than the majority of us upright, mostly hairless folks — and that's both lovely and tragic. As an anthropomorphic folktale, The Council of Animals is concise, clever, and wonderfully conceived. As an allegory of the human condition, it's even better.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded.
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