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“There is no story of a city that is not also a story of brutality. There is no story of brutality that has not been retold as one of heroism.” So writes Joni Murphy in the opening pages of her new novel, Talking Animals, which spends its first section (titled “The Five Burrows”) recounting the history of a fictional New York City. This version of New York’s past is disconcertingly similar to that of the real city, except that animals, not humans, are the ones doing all the colonizing and land pillaging and developing. Starting right off with an actual historical semi-lecture may seem heavy-handed for a work of satire, but it’s worth recounting how New York came to be in such brutal detail if only to help disabuse readers of any lingering notions of the inherent civility of civilization. The NYC established in Talking Animals features stark hierarchies among the animals, domination by some and oppression of others, all within buildings and offices and systems taken straight from the real world. It’s not uncommon to hear NYC IRL described as the concrete jungle, a city of wildlife. In this case, it’s true.
Despite the adorable alpaca on the cover, Talking Animals is not a light read. The book is hilarious, punny, and ultimately hopeful, but it is about as scathing an assessment of modern life as you can imagine. Set in a time frame reminiscent of 2012—Hurricane Sparky has recently devastated the metropolis, and a plutocratic horse named Baldwin Shergar III is ruling over it all—the novel follows an alpaca named Alfonzo Vellosso Faca, a City Hall Department of Records worker who is also a grad student struggling to turn in his thesis. His co-worker and best friend, the llama Mitchell (whose name is a probable reference to the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program established in the 1950s), understands how much everything sucks but seems to roll with it the best he can. But Alfonzo is not so easygoing: He misses his ex-girlfriend and his dead immigrant mother, the academic system is failing him and vice versa, and he cannot figure out what he truly wishes to do with his life. With Mitchell’s prodding, he soon discovers a vast conspiracy and comes to better understand something that’s beyond everything he’s familiar with: why an entire population—sea creatures—are trying to liberate themselves after years of mistreatment.
The book has been billed as “Animal Farm for the Anthropocene,” and indeed, Talking Animals is to disaster capitalism what that classic Orwell novel was to creeping totalitarianism. In Murphy’s ostensibly democratic society, some animals are more equal than others. Ruminants like Alfonzo are treated with contempt expressed by superior-minded cats, dogs, horses, and pigs—many of whom are self-dealing plutocrats more interested in bolstering themselves than in any actual philanthropy or public service. However, the sea creatures have it worst of all and, more recently, have been blamed for the ravages of Hurricane Sparky. Government officials believe there is “a secret society bent on destroying first New York, then eventually all dry land.” Animals who publicly sympathize with aquatic critters are considered double agents. The sea natives fighting for their rights who are considered “extremists” are part of the Sea Equality Revolutionary Front, or SERF. (Get it?) The real-world analogues here are not very subtle.
But while the water-dwellers are angry at the landlubbers, it turns out the rising sea levels are caused by what we’re (poorly) dealing with in the real world as well: climate change. After all, you can’t build a city through annihilative means and not expect to reap what you sow. And the story of Manhattan—like the stories of Los Angeles, Chicago, and other major cities—is the story of controlling and exchanging water sources and supply as much as anything else.
Those who are looking for more escapist fare while we live through historically bleak times will not find that in Talking Animals. But even as we fight against a pandemic ultimately fostered by human demolition, it’s worth the reminder of how centuries of decisions have led us to where we are now. If anything, the biggest flaw of Talking Animals is that it’s almost too effective: Murphy does not hesitate to lay it on thick, sometimes spending multiple paragraphs, say, contriving ozone layer parallels instead of letting the characters’ development speak for itself. Fortunately, her elegant and drily funny prose sweeps you along, sprinkling wordplay throughout (the environmental initiative Ocean Melt Greenland is known as OMG) and shaping her characters so you are invested in their discoveries as they gradually realize what’s at stake in their world.
Talking Animals is as much a paean to New York City as it is a brutal skewering of it. That’s not a contradiction: The beauty and glamour of NYC are inextricable from the destruction it’s caused. But the characters, who come to epiphanies regarding their society and empathize with those who have been suffocated for too long, reject that easy, lazy, immoral nihilism is the answer. The world is awful, but we owe it to ourselves and those we love to fight for those oppressed, to create a safer, more just world. We made the mess we live in today. But we can still do our best to clean it up, even if we’re just an alpaca.