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'Night of the Animals' is a wild night at the zoo

FICTION

Night of the Animals

By Bill Broun

Ecco

560 pages, $26.99.

Beautiful and strange and flawed but in noble ways, “Night of the Animals” is a sport of nature, sort of, a novel about a dystopic future world in which most of the Earth’s animal species are gone, except for the ark-sanctuary of the London Zoo, where a 90-year old fitfully schizophrenic addict, and King Harry9, and an American death cult, and the Christ of Otters, and a CIA operative from West Virginia, among other beings and species, crash together in a wild night.

This shaggy book is a first novel written over 14 years by Anglo-American or American-Anglo journalist and fiction writer Bill Broun.  With a British father and American mother, and education and professional careers in the U.S. and U.K., Broun’s planted solidly in both countries, but the focus here is deeply on the U.K., down to its pre-Christian, animist roots in the wild island—the woods and water and land that remain touchstones in British culture, although mostly now--as American wilderness looms in U.S. culture--only available in imagination and art, thanks to development, climate change, pollution and environmental abuses, habitat destruction, and apathy.

Broun has said that the book started, among other things, as an attempt to claim some less trammeled literary territory in nature--specifically, the London Zoo, rarely written about in fiction.  The zoo is the central axis both of plot here, and of the spirit that animates (“anima” and “spirit” both come from the same Indo-European linguistic roots in “breath”) the energy and ideas grounding this compelling but problematic narrative.

The narrative is compelling because of its style and voice, an omniscient syn-aesthetic immersive experience at its most intense, in ways mimicking the unfettered creativity of schizophrenia, where syntax and grammatical functions just don’t do the job of saying what needs to be said, and therefore are strained and twisted and composed of riveting, startling juxtapositions in image and figurative language—in things noticed by the narrative eye, and in its similes and metaphors.  Random samples: an otter is a “hyper little man with a chunky living rudder,” the main character squeezing into a bush is “being unwound into something; he arrived dragging a spool of wet vines and scratches with him, his head squeezed to a screaming red bolus.  He tumbleswiveled through the holly […] ’now that’s a long popple ‘round the Wrekin’ ,' he said.”

The style and voice spin out a story set in 2052, in an authoritarian Britain ruled again by a thug king, after various revolts and reformations, and a Britain riven by class warfare and economic inequality.  The main character, Cuthbert is a 90-year old survivor of childhood abuse and resulting mental illness and a lifelong history of drug abuse—specifically, this culture’s version of Soma or any of the other various highly addictive social pacifiers used in societies and literature, from bread and circuses to alcohol to “mélange,” the most important and valuable substance in the universe in the iconic “Dune” books of Frank Herbert.  The drug here is “flot,” a liquid abused and used and threaded through all levels of British society in 2052.

Since he was a child, Cuthbert has heard animals talking -- but is it, as his grandmother told him, because he’s been gifted with “The Wonderments,” an ancient ability to communicate with animals and one passed from generation to generation as a blessing and obligation, or because he’s a schizophrenic sot, in and out of hospitals and homeless for most of his adult life?

Offering narrative tension on the macro scale is the rise of an American suicide cult that views animals as enemies impeding humans’ ability to evolve.  This cult is making insidious inroads within Britain, alongside a native rebel movement fighting back at the brutish chokehold King Harry9 holds on his “sceptered isle.”

Cuthbert decides that he needs to free the animals in the London Zoo before the suiciders get to them.

And so he does.  And things get complicated and apocalyptic.

The narrative is problematic because, while the hallucinatory ecstatic visionary parts taking place within the remembered and current worlds of the main character are arresting, those parts when normal life pops up and the regular world needs to be interacted with via a variety of non-nutter characters, things become a little less seamless and occasionally strained in attempting to render realistic action and conversation, given contexts and situations.  On occasion, the narrative loses the necessary deep focus that allows events to continue to proceed in the background while the focus is on the foreground, to use a film analogy, resulting in a gap or two that a reader has to leap over.

This is literary, not genre, fiction, in spite of occasionally seeming otherwise:  “Astrid felt terrified.  But in her and St. Cuthbert’s midst, they were beginning to see a counterweight to the cult’s artful technologies.  The souls of the animals were quickly collecting into an emerald nimbus, half alive, half supernatural, which kept expanding and expanding.  Within the cloud St. Cuthbert and Astrid could see all the animals, led by the black leopard, Monty, beginning to attack the white Neuters.  It was a gory, glittery battle, and the animals seemed to be gaining an advantage.”

If you want to find out how Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert, and Astrid--a park police officer--becomes the Christ of Otters, and how Monty and the emerald cloud defeat the white Neuters, and a new day dawns in England, take a walk on the wild side with “Night of the Animals.”

Ed Taylor is a Buffalo freelance critic and the author of "Theo."

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