It’s a trick word: this thing we think is full of facts and histories, but then suddenly we become aware of all that’s invisible in it, all the energies that can’t be represented or known. (I’ve heard there are people who believe that there’s nothing that’s not on the internet.) Then suddenly reality is just a fantasy and all the categories blur. “Realism” was a 19th century phenom that had to do with telling tales of subjects who’d been left out of sight in the popular genres—combined later with a penchant for ‘research.’ Experimental Animals also shows characters and arguments that widen the concept of what we’ve taken for ‘reality,’ to include other kinds of subjectivities.
So if reality is a fantasy, what’s fiction?
Fiction is a spooky form of reality that’s very convenient for looking at questions that a narrow non-fiction focus might miss. This is because fiction can explore the dramatic, the paradoxical in situations, the characters as self-contradictory and limited individuals—the pressures of time and fantasies. In fiction, there’s story-worlds, logics, and skewy place-times in which ideas can become actions and try things out—“experimental selves” as Milan Kundera calls them. Thus fiction pretends to be real, yet in magical ways. In a novel there is thinking and there is representation, along with structures and polyphonies of voices — but there’s also imagination and there’s a unique kind of truth. . . . This is why Gulliver’s Travels still works today. Why we can read Don Quixote or You Don’t Love Yourself or Trenchtown Rock and think along with the books. Thinking time is complex and criti-fictional—it works as both historical and trans-historical. Experimental Animals is a fiction engaging historically embodied situations that contain open questions, arguments, debate.
What’s a situation for a fiction?
For me, situations are paradoxical ecologies of perspectives and meanings, of history and fiction, of fantasy and sociology, of multiple spacio-temporal worlds, where nothing is necessarily more true or more important or more worthy of attention—and yet—when confronted with situations, we want to see all the sides, try out choosing one, then another . . . This is why situations are the basis of the best literature; and why literature can respond to inquiries other human activity can’t handle. Literature and situations are full of fertile contradictions and paradoxical challenges, full of beautiful awful things, and ugly exalting moments. Situations go beyond language toward awareness—extra-human, particular—and here is the possibility of getting past ourselves to explore all the sides of a living world. In situations, rationality doesn’t prevail, speech is only one form of communication, and all sentient beings can have equal rights to exist as they please.
What’s the situation in your book?
There’s a few interdependent situations that move through time as the book proceeds. There’s a historical marriage and family situation between Claude and Fanny Bernard and their daughters. But the moment animals start coming into the house, and being heard in the streets, then there’s a growing situation that involves other lives, and also the wider social context that is providing Claude the momentum for his laboratory experiments. This situation is embedded in others, wider political and cultural and capitalist situations in which, for example, individual women are constrained in certain ways, specific revolutions are at hand, justice and pain and equality are talked about in new ways, individual citizens see themselves differently, as do workers, or writers and artists. So what we think of as one small situation is simultaneously in cross-current with many other particular situations. That’s what fiction can handle. And situations don’t end — they just morph with the pressure of time. . . . Even the Bernard family is finally locked into a tomb together, and other people become statues in certain places, or get stuck in particular crypts, and so situations are put into stone, though of course they then become part of new situations.
What does this novel say about today?
It pretends to be “historical” but actually it’s taking place today.
Why do you use so many original documents?
In addition to the polyphony of the characters speaking “on stage” (in the novel) in their own voices, I’m trying to call attention to the lineage of fiction that has used historical documents as a nod to the world from which the fiction emerges—a sort of documentary momentum. It was an early modern ambition to mix research and fiction, history, I guess, if you look at Melville for example, but also this is why I bring up A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin within my book itself, and Frances Cobbe’s “realism.” The “document,” the first person account, was a strange appendage to the voices of fiction, trying to lock into history. And it was often an activist strategy. My book tries to be in conversation with this impulse even as “the feeling of reality” was being fashioned by more self-conscious ‘realists,’ who mostly dropped the use of the original documents for the sake of description.
What isn’t in the documents?
The documents from the archives included in Experimental Animals not only to give the characters their voices, but also spotlight the absence of “documents” for those characters who are historically voiceless: the animals and the women and those who didn’t leave a trail of text. Voicelessness is a condition with multiple facets in my novel, but one meaning is the historical one, and the book asks how fiction can remedy this in its way, through foregrounding the archive that must then be fictionalized for some.
Is there something secret about the book you’d like readers to know?
Yes. About two years ago, I came into possession of the few remaining remains from my childhood. In the box was an autobiography written for a third grade assignment on what we used to call construction paper. On the dedication, and then in the first chapter, I tell the story of my dogs who had been stolen from our yard on the south side of Chicago. I recall the policemen telling us about the dog-snatching ring that was working our neighborhood to provide dogs for the University of Chicago. Before holding this object, I had no memory of it. It was surreal to discover this evidence of my past—because I’ve been working on Experimental Animals, sifting through archives, engaging all kinds of materials and papers and following the research in a million directions to come up with the constellation that’s in the novel today—and yet—buried in a box was me as a character, grieving my dogs. So I guess there was more to this story than even I’d realized, and I played a different part of it than I’d thought. The sad thing is how many dogs are still being stolen and bred and sold to labs. I wish I was more powerful to do something other than just write a book very few will read. I realize why I became so enamored with the women in the novel.
Here’s the picture:
THALIA FIELD is a professor of Literary Arts at Brown University. Experimental Animals is her sixth book. She has published three collections with New Directions: Point and Line (2000), Incarnate: Story Material (2004), and Bird Lovers, Backyard (2010). Her performance novel, Ululu (Clown Shrapnel), was published with Coffee House Press, and she has two collaborations with French author Abigail Lang: A Prank of Georges (Essay Press, 2010) and the forthcoming Leave to Remain. Before writing books, Thalia worked in theaters in Paris, Berlin, and New York.