Good Grief, Tibby: Wendy MacNaughton and Caroline Paul's "Lost Cat"
By Jillian SteinhauerApril 9, 2013
Lost Cat by Wendy MacNaughton and Caroline Paul
SOMETIMES I THINK MY LIFE IS DIVIDED into two distinct phases: the Before Cat Era and the Cat Era. The BCE years were a dark time, and largely a blur — there was depression, loneliness, a lack of snuggling. Okay, maybe not crippling depression and loneliness, considering CE didn’t begin until four years ago, but there’s no question that there was a void — a snuggle-shaped void waiting to be filled. Even if I wasn’t aware of it.
We did have pets, somewhat, when I was a child: a procession of goldfish (one brought home in a plastic bag from a Purim carnival, and two that followed when it died) and a Venus flytrap, which was named Zoe and was technically my sister’s. We also had a running joke about how my siblings had begged my parents for a dog and got me instead! Ah-ha-ha! Luckily for everyone, that plan failed.
For most of my life, though, I never understood pet people, because I wasn’t one. From the outside, pet people are undeniably odd: they talk in unnaturally high-pitched voices, even when their pets aren’t around; they spend lots of money on feathers and balls and plush beds they’ll never sleep on; they voluntarily clean up animal poop. These are not rational activities. When a friend’s pet would die and she’d call or come over to sob uncontrollably, I’d have to fight off the question, “Seriously? Over a dog?”
In petdom, as in so many other things, America is a nation divided: slightly more than half of all US households own a pet. Thus, on one side stand the proud owners of animals, cooing and offering treats to their four-legged charges; on the other, the non–pet owners, speaking in normal voices to the other humans around them. (Even among pet owners, it should be noted, there’s not always consensus: consider dog people vs. cat people, which is like being a Beatles or a Stones person.) Between the two groups, there lies a gulf of confusion and misunderstanding and cat videos.
If you don’t own a pet, there’s a good chance you have no interest in the whole ordeal. You think we’re mostly sad and obsessive, and you want to back slowly away. I understand: I was once like you. If, however, you are even mildly curious about the psychology of cat-owners (whether you are one of them, or have long eyed them suspiciously), brethren, there is a book for you. Caroline Paul’s Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology is revelatory. It’s a brief memoir, a slim volume with illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton, and, like any book of its kind (and there are many), it will take you on an emotional journey. The difference here is that Paul’s is not about drug addiction or domestic abuse or one man’s rise to fame. It’s simply about the highs and lows, the joy and grief of owning a feline.
“Things can go to hell fast,” writes Paul, “and never return to normal.” Caroline is the owner of two cats, Tibia and Fibula, named after the bones and nicknamed Tibby and Fibby, and her story’s inciting moment is a plane crash. (The author apparently dabbles in homemade flying machines, which is amazing, and subject enough for a compelling book.) In the crash, Caroline breaks a lot of bones, including the aforementioned ones, and winds up on the couch depressed and drugged up. Fortunately, her partner Wendy (who is also her illustrator) takes care of the author during this painful time, a time when she-of-the-catheter-bag, admittedly, “was not good company.” But while Caroline is recovering, Tibby disappears. He’s lost. After five weeks, he returns. He’s found.
The story would be simple enough if it ended there, but Tibby is already home by chapter 3 — in a book with 22 chapters. Although the theme of pets lost and recovered is the heartwarming stuff of The Incredible Journey (the novel and the Disney movie) and YouTube videos and local TV news, that’s not really what this book is about. For the next 19 chapters, Caroline and Wendy go on a quest to find out where Tibby had been hiding and what happened to him for those five weeks. Why was he gone for so long, only to return unscathed?
The couple begins their search with flyers, but soon move on to a pet psychic, GPS tracking, a cat camera, animal communication class, and detectives specializing in lost pets. This is, as Paul calls it, “Operation Chasing Tibby,” not just a cute thought exercise. She goes to extremes that many of us would only hesitatingly dream of (or nervously laugh at) in an attempt to answer the question: just where does an outdoor cat actually go? For evidence that people far and wide are concerned with the domesticated cat’s peregrinations, see The National Geographic & University of Georgia Kitty Cams (Crittercam) Project: “A window into the world of free-roaming cats.”
MacNaughton nails this single-minded absurdity in one of her illustrations, a pie chart of cat owners’ thought breakdown. Questions like, “What is my cat doing right now?”; “Why is my cat peeing on the ________ again?”; and, “Is my cat depressed?” take up the vast majority of the pie, while roughly a fifth of it gets divided among such basic human wants as “shelter,” “sex,” “food,” and “tea.” Although this is an obvious exaggeration, it’s also eerily close to the truth (the type of dichotomy that MacNaughton is generally masterful at portraying). When my cat and I are under the same roof, it’s impossible to concentrate on anything for too long without petting her or wondering where she is, or, these days, Instagramming a photo of her. Cat owners are nothing if not devoted. Caroline Paul is, quite literally, just your average cat owner on steroids.
Having a pet may teach us to care for another living thing in a physical way, but emotionally, it’s fairly self-indulgent. And in that sense, Lost Cat is not really about a cat (or two of them) at all. Like pretty much everything humans write and create about pets, the issue at the heart of the book is the way we treat and think about our animals — our relationship with them and, consequently, ourselves. As it turns out, Tibby wasn’t lost at all: he was hiding. He needed to get away from Caroline and her depression for a while, an idea it takes her 160 pages to accept. Funny how we project human-like feelings onto our pets but then are shocked when they express real needs. It’s ironic especially with cats, I think; we adore them precisely for their independent personalities, and yet we still expect unconditional love and devotion on call.
If all of this sounds heavy-handed or New Agey, don’t worry — the book is anything but. Lost Cat is written, from the start, like a whimsical fairy tale, which means it moves easily and hilariously from one sentence and chapter to the next. Like the storyline, though, the form only appears simple; in truth, it’s ingeniously crafted. That first page, for instance, contains only a single sentence — “One day, I was in a plane crash” — against a watercolor depicting bits of wreckage and a plume of smoke. Taken together, the whole thing is wonderfully understated, a tone that continues on the next page:
The plane, which I was piloting, was nothing more than sailcloth and aluminum tubing and a lawnmower engine. It was called an “experimental plane,” as if the flying part was just sort of a guess. Which it was, on this day anyway.
You might think — and you would be correct — that this is the perfect setup for a memoir, a genre which tends to abide by the golden rule of: the more dramatic, the better! And yet Paul dispatches what should be the most traumatic part of her story quickly. In keeping with this reversal, the language and tenor of the book become increasingly hysterical and overblown not as her condition worsens or she spirals into depression, but as she physically and emotionally heals while trying to retrace Tibby’s path. It’s a brilliantly subtle subversion of what we expect of a memoir.
That emotional heightening is abetted by language that frames the story like a fable. This comes through especially during such episodes as Caroline’s trip to the spy store in search of a cat-mountable GPS tracking device: “But each GPS unit he showed me was much too big.” Much too big — like what Goldilocks said about the bears’ chairs.
And just like in fairy tales and fables, the animals here have distinct personalities, which Paul conveys in incredible detail:
I loved Fibby but recognized her for who she was: charming, smart, needy, the girl in middle school who ostracized fat kids and boys with bad skin, who whispered loudly behind people’s backs, who snickered at the child with the leg braces and the unspecified diseases, who spread mean rumors […] and who, despite all this, was loved and envied by every classmate.
Tibby was the boy with the Coke-bottle glasses whose books were kicked into the mud daily. Fibby was not going to be his friend. Did they even love each other, like twins should? It was hard to know.
Paul’s convictions are so firm, her knowledge of her cats so intimate and her descriptions so meticulous, you can’t help but accept them as true characters in the story. The humans in the family, meanwhile, are ascribed such actions as whimpering, sniffing, and mewling, bringing them and the animals even closer together.
At the same time, Paul’s extreme sensitivity to both her cats and her quest is tempered by a sense of humor that spares nothing and no one, least of all herself. As the book progresses, she plays up her hysteria, dragging us deeper into her world, where the word “cat” barely exists — “kitty” being the proper designation. In the penultimate chapter, when Caroline and Wendy invite the couple that had been feeding Tibby over to their home, Paul explains, “When you have cat stealers over for tea, you clean the house, buy bagels and cream cheese, and try to figure out how to trap your guests in a lie.” She then refers to the couple as Cat Stealers, initial-caps, for the next 11 pages — at which point they become Cat Whisperers.
Although Wendy starts off as less-than-thrilled with Tibby and Fibby’s presence, part of the story is her slow transformation into a bona fide cat lover. And her illustrations, from page one, offer the same caring perceptiveness and wry humor as Paul’s writing: in one, we see a night sky filled with stars, a satellite buzzing at the top right corner, and the very tips of Tibby’s whiskers and ears offering a poignant contrast down below; in another, which diagrams gadgets from the spy store, we get this note: “Passive GPS tracker: plastic, water resistant, mounts magnetically to surface, 100 hours of tracking. Note: cat not magnetic. Magnetize possible?”
All of this may sound a little over the top, and it is, especially for such a short book. But the effect is a fiercely charming narrative that sneaks up on a reader, just as the best fantastical books do. “Look!” the authors seems to say. “We know, we know — a memoir about a cat. It’s ridiculous. We’re ridiculous. See how crazy we are?!”
I didn’t choose to get a cat—I chose to live with someone who owned one. “I’ll see how it goes,” I thought, and at first, what with the bathroom smelling like crap and the mysterious, psychotic animal that constantly ran down the hallway and bounded onto my bed like an aerialist on speed, it did not go well. She also wasn’t into snuggling or being petted, which seemed like the whole point of having a pet.
But then the roommate moved out and away, and I found myself volunteering to keep Lady. Weeks later we were settled in a new apartment in Brooklyn, and one day she tentatively pawed her way onto my lap, testing out this uncharted territory. Shifting back and forth, wobbling and poking around a bit, she eventually found it satisfactory. Then she curled up in a little black and white ball and went to sleep.
When you’re busy fighting off sneak attacks on your ankles, or scoffing at Caroline Paul’s attempts at feline communication — that is, when you’re not really paying attention — you become invested. You fall for the ways of the cat. You fall, as Wendy did, for Tibby and Fibby. And by the time you’ve realized it, there’s no turning back. Lost Cat is an incredibly endearing work, a snapshot of the madness of loving and agonizing over and chasing after animals. It is the type of book Jillian BCE would never have touched. And that would have been her loss.
Jillian Steinhauer is senior editor of the art blogazine Hyperallergic and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Awl, and the Jewish Daily Forward, among other places. For smaller doses, you can also find her Twitter.
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