Exploring the art of prose



Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All, by Christopher Irvin

Reviewed by Nick Fuller Googins

For those who tire of life in the Anthropocene, with near-daily headlines reminding us of the many ways our species continues destroying vibrant swaths of our planet, it may be comforting to imagine a world with less people, or, in the case of Christopher Irvin’s debut novel, Ragged, no people at all.

Spoiler alert: it’s not.

Ragged; or, The Loveliest Lies of All follows in the tradition of Wind in the Willows and Fantastic Mr. Fox by featuring cognizant animals who speak in sophisticated sentences and, for the most part, wear pants. The protagonist, Cal, is a dog. The antagonist, a mob-boss raccoon named Maurice. There are warrior frogs, dude-bro deer, a blind pygmy shrew chef. Human beings don’t exist in this world, yet its characters still find plenty of anthropomorphic ways to screw things up.

Cal lives with his family in the Woods, a forest community with a suburban mentality: they care primarily about family and secondly at keeping out the riffraff. The riffraff, a murderous horde of varmints led by Maurice, occupy the Fells. A river separates the Fells from the Woods, a line of demarcation that begins to blur when Cal’s wife dies from a mysterious infection that threatens all. Because infection is punishable by banishment, Cal must keep his wife’s death a secret from his pups, all the while grieving in private:

Oh, how he needed to tell them, to somehow explain in a way that might make sense of the tragedy—not only to them but to himself as well. And yet, to tell them would be to risk their future—any slip in front of the wrong friend or neighbor could land them in permanent exile. Every answer gave birth to more questions, surfaces he’d barely scratched.

Disease is both the spark plug and the internal combustion engine of the novel, propelling the plot from beginning to end. The conflict grows from interior to exterior when Cal feels compelled to know who—or what—infected his wife, leading him to reconnect with his checkered past across the river. His search is complicated when rumors of the sickness spread, tightening the noose of suspicion tighter around Cal, his pups, and his neighbors, all culminating in an epic, multi-species battle royale.

So why animals?

The question must be asked, especially in sections where Cal is acting so “human” that it’s easy to forget he’s not. How to separate an author’s use of anthropomorphic animals as gimmick versus craft? One good reason to cast animals might be for sympathy points; stories like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Watership Down lend their characters an immediate sympathetic edge by juxtaposing them against the destructive and callous human race. Irvin, however, cannot play this card, for Ragged has no people to act the villain. Furthermore, the book’s animals are drawn as complex as any person—a little villain in every hero and vice versa—so none are as one-dimensionally “fantastic” as Mr. Fox.

If not sympathy, what about allegory? Storytellers since Aesop, if not before, have been allegorizing with animals. Animal protagonists create a degree of separation from even the most empathetic readers, but when done right they can have the effect of illuminating uniquely human behavior. Ragged is no cleanly-drawn allegory for our times (and Irvin does himself a favor by not trying to make it one) but its characters express allegorical behaviors, and in these moments the novel truly “earns” its all-animal cast by doing what a cast of homo sapiens could not.

We see it best when characters are pulled by instinct—be it love, fear or anger—such as the moment in which Cal loses his patience with Roderick, an informant rabbit:

“Who bit my wife?” Cal barked through snarled jaws. He slammed the rabbit back into the bush. One of the thin branches snapped, plunging into Roderick’s neck just above Cal’s grip. The cut was small and unbeknownst to Cal, but deep, severing the carotid artery, and when Cal pulled him back out in frustration, the cut opened, spraying arterial blood over the left side of Cal’s face.

“Oh—oh, dear,” muttered Cal.

What follows is one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, as Cal awkwardly crams Roderick’s body into a cooler, drags it home and feeds his pups. The tone, gruesome and humorous, lightens the severity of the act while underscoring the casualness of violence in nature, but it also speaks to us as humans. Who has not felt the hot driving flash of emotion? The pull to go full-on Beast Mode? And, just as important, the quick comedown, the “Oh—oh, dear” insta-regret of acting before thinking? Of course there are plenty of stories, both fictional and In Real Life, with characters who act on their worst instincts; it’s easy to imagine a human Cal killing a human Roderick in a spark of frustration-fury. Yet the consequences of that action, set in our world, would be severe, likely rerouting the course of the novel. Instead, Cal, as a dog, hasn’t committed second degree murder, he has merely acted like a dog. He made a mistake, feels bad about it, feeds his family, moves on. Irvin, by writing his characters as animals, gives himself the freedom to play with instinct, pushing it to a level beyond where social conditioning tempers us humans (most of us) to tap the brakes. It’s a smart craft move, letting instinct inform character in ways that are inaccessible to anthropocentric works. The only downside is that Irvin doesn’t do it more. Were his characters allowed to run slightly less human and slightly more animal—less Wind in the Willows, more Animal Farm—the novel would shine even brighter.

Adult fiction is a rare species within the anthropomorphic lineage. Animal Farm fits the mold, as does George Saunders’s story, “Fox 8,” and possibly Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but the vast majority of anthropomorphic works are written for children. Ragged is not. If the slasher scene involving Roderick the rabbit doesn’t tip you off (not the book’s sole R-rated moment of gore, by the way), the abundance of thematic threads will: community, tribalism, revenge, renewal, exclusion, sickness. At times the sheer bulk of thematic material feels a bit ambitious for 250 pages, but the handling of sickness and community are continually well-drawn. Take the late-night chat between Maurice and Cal, when the raccoon warns of rumors involving Cal’s wife: “Once marked with disease, always marked with disease, no matter the outcome. You can live, but you can’t go home.”

Anyone who has suffered from serious illness or watched family suffer can speak to the disturbing ease in which society conflates disease with identity. Irvin teases out this tendency well, showing how the agreeable rabbits, pigs, and badgers of the Woods, when threatened with sickness, are capable of shedding their convivial suburban mentality and turning on their own, all in a few raging moments.

Ragged is no fable, but like any decent work of fiction it reflects a piece of ourselves in the pages. Through Irvin we see a world of animals, not a human in sight; yet he also serves us a powerful reminder involving the fragile architecture of trust and mutual aid that props up society, and how quickly it can all come crashing down.

Publisher: Cutlass Press, 2017

NICK FULLER GOOGINS’s fiction has been read on NPR’s All Things Considered, and has appeared or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, EcotoneNarrativeZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark MFA Program and a mentor for the Palestinian writing program We Are Not Numbers. In his spare time he plays trombone as the least-talented musician in a community street band.