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The Birds and the Bees: Our Favorite Animal Point-of-View Fiction

Last week’s New Yorker featured beloved biologist E.O. Wilson’s “Trailhead,” a short story about ants in flux in the aftermath of their queen’s death. The conceit provides Wilson ample opportunity for desert-dry ant humor — one ant’s entire existence is summed up thusly: “The only thing he had ever done was accept meals regurgitated to him by his sister” — but, for the most part, “Trailhead” walks a fine line between an over-literal take on dirty realism, and a not-quite literary take on a middle-school biology text. Wilson is certainly a genius, and an ant expert — his 1991 book The Antswon the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction — but maybe the switch to fiction isn’t the best idea. However, he’s by no means the first writer to tackle animal POV  in fiction. Here are some other examples, from 8 AD to the present day.

Metamorphoses by Ovid (8 AD) Ovid is the daddy of Animal POV. Can you name another writer whose use of dactylic hexameter is but a gateway to all sorts of man/god/animal S+M?

White Fang by Jack London (1906) Narrated by sympathetic wolves, this classic has been turning readers on to the cruelties of nature for over a century. And turning them vegetarian.

The Metamorphosis; “A Report to an Academy”; “Investigations of a Dog”; “The Burrow” by Franz Kafka (1915; 1917; 1922; 1924) Everyone knows Gregor Samsa, the young man-turned-vermin in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but Franz K’s other animal stories are comparably great. An ex-ape struggling with identity, a dog whose epistemological concerns stem from his limited upward visibility, a neurotic mole — Kafka’s animals are like him: marginalized, peerless, longing, lonely.

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925) Perhaps an odd precursor to Orwell’s Animal Farm, the story centers around a dog named Sharik who is surgically implanted with human testicles.

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945) Orwell’s novella about tyrannical pigs taking over a work farm is the most well known literary work of political allegory. Josef Stalin is represented by a pig named Napoleon. We think Trotsky’s name is Snowball.

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino (1965) A collection of stories from the POV of Qwfqw, a shape-shifter who, at various instances, takes the form of an amoeba, a dinosaur, and a mollusk.

Grendel by John Gardner (1971) Gardner re-imagines the Beowulf story from the monster Grendel’s perspective. In Gardner’s version, Grendel’s just a misunderstood soul with mommy issues.

Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972) Bunny rabbits fight for survival. Sort of like Avatar, but with better dialogue.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1980) This haunted late novella by longtime New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell features a strange and moving passage from the POV of a dog abandoned by his owner.

Redwall by Brian Jacques (1986) Okay, this is a YA series. But we really liked them when we were about about 11.

Maus; Maus II by Art Spiegelman (1986; 1991) Spiegelman’s deeply complex and emotional book about the Holocaust, in which the Jews are drawn as mice imprisoned by Nazi cats, is one of the great art works to come out of the atrocity, and arguably, the blueprint for the entire graphic-novel medium.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson (1998) Carson’s poem-as-novel based on the Herakles myth is told from the POV of Geryon, a winged devil who is also a victim of sexual abuse, and a burgeoning homosexual. A difficult premise, but Carson’s effortless lyricism and honest empathy for her character make this one of the great hybrid works of our time.

Timbuktu by Paul Auster (1999) Mr. Bones worries that the fact of his dog-ness will prevent him from entering heaven upon his death. Apparently this is a real worry for dogs.

King by John Berger (2000) A lesser known work by the great critic/novelist John Berger, King — like Auster’s Timbuktu — is narrated by an existentialist dog. King ponders god and meaning in the face of his home, The Terrain, a fictional enclave inhabited by French derelicts.

I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume (2001) The Japanese love their cats. Murakami’s fiction is filled with talking ones, though usually not from their POV. Natsume’s I Am a Cat is told by a down-on-his-luck nameless cat still trying to catch his first mouse.

The London Pigeon Wars by Patrick Neate (2004) Most Animal POV fiction deals with dogs. Not this one. It’s narrated by a pigeon.

“The Secret Goldfish” by David Means (2004) Another New Yorker story. This one’s about goldfish. It’s kinda funny.

How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers (2005) This story collection features sex-crazed anteaters, among other animals.

Firmin by Sam Savage (2006) Perhaps the first animal bildungsroman, Savage’s novel follows a book-loving (and book-eating) rat around 1960s Boston.

“My Predicament” by Benjamin Kunkel (2006) Great story from the POV of a self-hating spider. Unlike Woody “I hate myself, but not because I’m Jewish” Allen, Kunkel’s spider abhors the very fact of his spider-ness.

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein (2008) A dog named Enzo hangs out with a race-car driver. Supposedly uplifting.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (2008) In this liberal re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a mute boy talks to dogs.

“Dear Miss Proctologist Lady in the Bushes” by Sam Lipstye (2008) In an update on Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy,” Lipsyte writes from the POV of a literate, love-struck ape, hoping to hump the kindest of his captors. There’s a great audio recording here.

Feel free to add any we neglected to mention in the comments!

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