32. Sarah Falkner, Animal Sanctuary

19 Aug

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I bought this book off the Starcherone table at my very first AWP, three years ago, on the recommendation of the publisher, and it has been sitting on the to-read shelf ever since. I should give Cathy at 746Books a huge shout-out for forcing me (I mean, inspiring me) to deal with problems like this.

Animal Sanctuary is the fictional story of Kitty Dawson, a failing and somewhat desperate 1950s female movie-star who opens an shelter for big cats after having acted in many movies featuring animal disasters. Kitty’s story is mirrored by the story of lesbian university student who became her body double while on location during her last film in Africa. The student is seeking a missing girlfriend, with a complicated disaster story of her own.

Despite those improbable events, this book is not plot-driven (which goes a long way towards explaining why it sat on my shelf for so long). The pleasure is much more complex, lying in the tensions and meditations on gender, narrative and otherness that Faulkner sets up with the above characters. The first doubling, of the female ’50s screen star and the big tawny cat in captivity is great. It’s not something I would ever have thought of, but both share a combination of beauty, power and imprisonment. Both are majestic and victimized, sexy and sad. The second doubling, of the lesbian university student, herself doubled in her lover, adds a layer of intrigue: the two girls are looking for meaning, looking for a way to participate actively in their world that feels authentic to them.

The narrative progressed in a self-conscious way, with, for example, a chapter that alternates between sections in dialog between Kitty and her psychotherapist, on the one hand, and the film director and an interviewer, on the other. There are art-grant applications, summaries of scenes from movies, conversation snippets, a chapter of snippets of film theory . The changing texture of the reading experience kept things interesting. And I thought Falkner’s prose was quite good.

The second half of the book focused on the art career of movie-star Kitty Dawson’s son, Rory Dawson.

We meet Rory when he’s on vacation in Mexico with his lover David, an older, more successful, artist. The echo, here is about spectacle populations. The Mexicans are a double for the film-star/ woman/ other, while Rory and David are the doubles for the director/artist appropriating the other. I appreciated another sophisticated doubling, but the Rory perspective, with whom the reader was supposed to sympathize, made me want to tear my hair out.

Rory and David are interrupted in their Mexican vacation by some asshole rich-people collectors, the Whaleys. David explains to Rory that the price of success in the art world is sometimes hanging out with such people (this is true).  But Rory is pissy and horrified at the collectors’ culturally insensitive travel objectives. They want to see touristy things! They hire a car instead of taking the perfectly good bus! No one knows Spanish or cares about really understanding the culture! David colludes with them! He plans a new conceptual piece using a theory-concept (about gift economies) that he doesn’t really understand!

I just found this so irritating. Rory is the son of a movie star. By wanting to make it in the art world, he is setting out to make extremely high end luxury goods for the super-rich, and no amount of ideologically correct bus travel can change that. Moreover, his famous name means that he can insult the Whaleys and get away with it. And of course he does, and in later chapters is an art star himself. His mission (and later the mission of animal sanctuary employees) is to understand the other, see through their eyes, correctly use their shamanistic rituals in his art.

This is an elegant construction for Falkner’s book: She’s setting up oppositions and then trying to bridge them through understanding. I think in terms of what she was aiming for, it was successful. But I personally found the argument frustratingly useless and self-centered. Understanding doesn’t actually do anything, doesn’t change any of the underlying facts of the power dynamics she’s trying to critique.

At one point, Rory lives in a dual-chambered cage with a lion for months, allowing the lion to see him, but he can’t see the lion. Whatever Rory’s intent, only one participant in the piece is there voluntarily, and it’s not the lion! I kept wondering if Falkner’s intent was to make Rory satirically ridiculous, but I don’t think it was.

In the end chapters he comes in for critique by a female art assistant, not for his ideologically correct approach to using indigenous rituals in his art, but for basically being a successful artist and employing her. She’s not making any art of her own—kept too busy at Rory’s—but wants to be an art star herself, and blames Rory and the corrupt art system for keeping her down. There’s a hard-to-pinpoint way that the whole book felt like this to me: Of someone wanting to have their critical cake, and eat it too. I enjoyed the medium, but not the message!

 

 

 

 

 

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