Lizard Brains: On "The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets"

November 18, 2012

    FOR SEVERAL YEARS, beginning when I was 11 or 12, I wanted a pet iguana badly. In my favorite comic strip, Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, 10-year-old Jason Fox had an iguana named Quincy, who looked like a cousin of the cute Nintendo character Yoshi. I knew that real-life iguanas were more dinosaur than friendly cartoon, but in the abstract I liked the casual threat implied by an iguana’s size. My mother, however, was skeptical about my ability to care for such a creature — “Where would we keep him?” she asked. “What would we feed him?” — and the matter was dropped. Years later, I met a high school friend’s iguana, the first I had ever seen outside a pet store. It was three feet long and looked cramped even in its large, screened-in pen. The iguana had an evasive, slithery gaze and a tendency to turn its head when I tried to see its face. When I asked my friend what its name was, he smirked. “I call it the iguana,” he said, as if it would be folly to give something so ineffable a name.

    The iguana in Diana Wagman’s latest novel The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets has a name — Cookie — and an entire kitchen as his habitat, which is a necessity, because Cookie is eight feet long. But despite these more luxe bona fides, the impetus of Wagman’s novel is that same iguana amor brujo I once felt: a marriage of the adult desire for control and the morbid child’s fascination with monsters. There are many monsters in Wagman’s novel, but only one is a lizard; the rest are human grotesques whose bestial charm drives the book’s suspenseful, gimlet-eyed drama. The novel reiterates my mother’s reasonable questions: how do we care for impossible creatures? With what do we nourish and sustain them?

    Set on a single November day in Los Angeles, where the sky is “vacant as a starlet’s smile,” The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets chronicles the frantic adventures of one Winnie Parker, a divorced 38-year-old suffering through a long spell of depression. It has been almost four years since Winnie’s beloved husband Jonathan left her for a younger woman. In the Echo Park bungalow where she spent the happiest days of her bygone marriage, Winnie now lives with only her 16-year-old daughter, Lacy, who is caught at that dangerous teenage intersection of hostility, entitlement, and low self-esteem. Occasionally she fields batty phone calls from her mother, Daisy Juniper, a legendary movie star who had her only child at 16 and “has been committed twice, but for insanity not drugs.” Winnie’s friends are vaguely referred to but never seen, and her days are spent caring for a dog she dislikes, working a meaningless secretarial job, and going through the motions of recreation with no real enjoyment; on the morning that the novel begins, she is dressed in unwashed whites for a tennis lesson that seems to her about as appealing as a day at the DMV.

    Winne is badly used by everyone she loves, from Daisy, whose idea of a consoling phrase is “We can’t all be important,” to Lacy, who says of Winnie, “Mom just works in an office. She’s nothing.” She feels unable to get over Jonathan, whose 23-year-old second wife Jessica possesses a pneumatic rack: “Lacy said Jessica’s boobs were fake, but Winnie thought they were just fresh and unused.” In contrast, Winnie feels “deflated, like an old balloon caught on a fencepost.” Her entire post-marital love-life consists of two horrible evenings, one with “Phil the pharmacist,” who asks Winnie for a “a play-by-play” appraisal of his sexual prowess after an encounter in which he does “not kiss her, but rub[s] his chest and belly against hers in circles, squishing her into the mattress and leaving drool on her cheek.” In the other, a younger man takes Winnie to a truck stop where truckers have clandestine sexual encounters, and she has to call Jonathan to come rescue her.

    Winnie, though, remains optimistic, making wishes on “pennies and dandelions, the first star at night, white horses, and the turned up hem of her pants or shirt.” Instead of a therapist, Winnie visits a low-rent Armenian psychic, who promises her, “You will meet a man. There will be much excitement, a trip to another place.” But like much else, this prophecy turns out to be a nasty joke: within the first few pages of the novel, a troubled young man named Oren Gaines kidnaps Winnie and imprisons her in his strangely hot house in Altadena.

    Winnie is taken captive while she is waiting for a shuttle to a car rental agency. The scenario’s plausibility makes it deeply unsettling; who hasn’t trusted a stranger to drive them somewhere, especially in Southern California? The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets peels back the veneer of routine, revealing the turbulence and violence beneath. No corner of Wagman’s Los Angeles is without menace: not the sparsely decorated rooms where Oren holds Winnie, not the glass sculpture garden where a besotted boy takes Lacy, not the bland interior of Jonathan and Jessica’s home in Beverly Hills. Wagman’s prose breeds a kind of retro paranoia, reminding the reader of the fallibility of the assumption of constant surveillance; no matter how degraded our expectations of privacy, there are still endless places — in daylight, in heavily populated L.A. — where a woman’s screams for help will go unanswered.

    Once she realizes that she has been kidnapped, Winnie begins to fight for her life, and doesn’t stop until the book’s last page. While her leap from ennui to determined survival is somewhat predictable, it reads true: “If [Winnie] lived through this, she would never complain about getting old again. Please, God, she thought, let me be old.” The scenes of physical combat between Oren and Winnie are visceral, relentless, and disturbing. Neither are skilled or particularly effective fighters; they just go after each other with fury. Winnie is kicked, slapped, concussed, cut, bound in rope and duct tape, and eventually subjected to one of the most unnerving sexual assaults in recent literature (which, at the risk of revealing too much, I will only say is not perpetrated by Oren). But she gives as good as she gets, lulling Oren into complacency with a steady stream of small talk and then betraying that trust again and again: kicking him in the groin, the head, grabbing for the knife or gun, launching herself through the nearest door or window. She’s tough, but she can’t stop comparing herself to her mother and Jessica, (in the same situation, Winnie thinks, Daisy’s charm would free her), and she can’t stop dreaming that Jonathan will come save her, even though her ex has long proven that he is no hero.

    At first, it seems that Oren’s reasons for abducting Winnie will be the book’s primary mystery; the kidnapping seems arbitrary, but Oren insists that he has taken Winnie for a reason specific to her identity. Wagman skillfully manipulates the narrative tension surrounding this question, baiting us with intermittent clues, but the kidnapper’s motivations become clear to the reader (if not to Winnie) before the book has reached its halfway point — at which point the novel becomes more complex, and more interesting.

    Part of Wagman’s project is to trace how one can inherit self-hatred, how dreams atrophy and die over the course of generations. Early on, we learn about Oren’s upbringing by carnie parents, a peripatetic stretch of misery spent in trailers and rural parking lots. Oren suffers frequent beatings at the hands of his father, benign neglect from his mother (a clown named Jilly Bean), and a wary distance from his sister. Cookie — at this time small enough to fit in the palm of Oren’s hand — is his only ally. As an adult, Oren strives for middle class normalcy, proudly holding down a job at Carpet Barn, keeping his rented house meticulously clean, and feeding Cookie fresh vegetables. Despite the fact that his closest friend is literally cold-blooded, adult Oren isn’t the chill sociopath he initially seems. He, like Winnie, is the damaged product of a traumatizing childhood perpetrated by uncaring adults. But unlike Winnie, Oren has not been redeemed by love. His closeness with Cookie is an attempt to experience the unconditional acceptance his parents failed to give him:

    Oren was proud to call Cookie his best friend. It was obvious Cookie loved him. He woke up when Oren got home and scrambled to the door. He knew his name, and Oren could swear Cookie knew the difference between cabbage and kale, carrots and zucchini, just by the word. Do you want carrots? Oren would ask, or zuchs? And Cookie would bob his head up and down for whichever one he preferred. And he was sweet and gentle, even though he was the biggest iguana anybody had seen. Oren took him once to the Iguana Keepers Club meeting. Even the seasoned lizard lovers had stayed back and then watched in awe as Oren let Cookie climb all over him. No wonder everyone called him the Iguana Man.

    Oren’s relationship with his Great Green Iguana is a misshapen performance of reciprocal love, the abused child’s attempt to recreate unconditional attachment. Loving Cookie gives Oren an archetypical identity that promises a vocation and the adoration of a crowd, those things enjoyed by his parents at the best moments of their carnival careers. As the novel progresses, the odd intimacy that develops between Oren and Winnie comes to rival the relationship between Oren and Cookie. This, eventually, becomes the truly thrilling part of the thriller: will Oren choose humanity, or follow his reptile brain? He is a descendant of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, neither as homicidal nor as morally unambiguous as that unforgettable character, but propelled by the same failure of categories. The Misfit kills because of the failure of faith; Oren hurts because of the failures of love.

    The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets is a wry presentation of such archetypes. At times, the characters seem simple, even flat, which I think is by design. Wagman’s sense of humor is sharp and unforgiving; these people are not the author’s darlings, but her own special freak show of the local species of contemporary Los Angeles. We’ve met all of them before: the self-obsessed entertainer with an elevated notion of his abilities, the carelessly destructive teenage girl, the tabloid queen whose lovely carapace hides emptiness and cruelty. Jonathan is a would-be movie star who has made heaps of money hosting Tie The Knot, “the most successful relationship show since The Dating Game,” and now longs for authenticity and artistic respectability as he once longed for popular success. He is lovable only to Winnie; to the reader, Jonathan’s inability to remember simple idioms, and his happy submission to Jessica’s sexual manipulation, makes it clear that he is not, as he would put it, “the sharpest crayon in the deck — or whatever that expression was.” Daisy Juniper has won two Oscars, and the mere mention of her name regresses men to “instant zits and boners, inane teenage slang.” But she’s a train wreck in the model of late-career Faye Dunaway, an icy beauty not above making a pass at her daughter’s husband, and who wears her permanent black eye as evidence of her ability to inspire passionate rage. When asked about her mother, Winnie dutifully rattles off a list of impersonal factoids that might be found on an IMDB page: “She did lose her first Oscar in a poker game. Those are not body doubles — she does all her own nudity.” A man named Kidney appears briefly to illustrate the difference between the hapless, sometimes likeable Oren and a real psychopath. After losing his job on a Saturn assembly line, Kidney figures his “country owe[s] him” any and every transgression: trafficking endangered animals, taking sexual advantage of women who live in dire poverty, and extorting enough cash to procure “the hottest slut in town.”

    The book’s weakest link is Lacy, who is simultaneously so capricious and so naive that she seems more like a mother’s fever dream of a teenage daughter than an actual person. Perhaps this is intentional, but the character strains credibility. Lacy spins elaborate stories about imaginary abuse to an internet boyfriend, and even gives him her phone number — a plot twist harder to believe than the eight-foot iguana in the kitchen. Given society’s To Catch A Predator preoccupation with online stranger-danger, Lacy’s behavior is unlikely for a girl of her age and milieu — a high school junior, the child of a celebrity, raised in urban Los Angeles — and she is also strangely free of the general anxiety suffered by every other character, uninterested in school and unworried about her future. Only in her scenes with Winnie does Lacy seem real.

    In these moments, Lacy is assailed by a general dissatisfaction with Winnie’s empty life:

    Her mother was just so boring. She had that stupid job which she hated. She had that one friend who was always busy. She never went anywhere. When Lacy got home from visiting her dad, Winnie would be sitting on the couch reading, exactly the same as when she left. It wasn’t Lacy’s job to entertain her, was it?

    This claustrophobic anger — equal parts fear, self-identification, and frustration — rings much truer than Lacy’s ill-advised online antics or mild sexuality. The daughter senses the mother’s unhappiness, and it makes her angry. Lacy and Winnie love each other, but can’t say it. In one of the book’s first scenes, Winnie enters her sleeping daughter’s bedroom to wake her for school. “She bent down to smooth a blond curl off her daughter’s cheek. Instead she smacked her butt [and said] ‘You smell like smoke.’” This pattern repeats itself throughout the book: a loving thought followed by a stabbing comment. By the end of the book, Oren and Winnie are performing this dynamic, too. In the beginning, when Oren calls Winnie “Mom,” it’s an insult, a reference to his own failed mother, his hatred of women; by the end, it starts to sound like a plea.

    [Readers concerned about spoilers may want to exit now and return after reading the novel. — Eds.]

    In 2010, Wagman wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times about the odd experience of buying a new car with the help of her unemployment benefits. It’s currently linked on her website as “My surprisingly controversial op-ed.” In it, she elegantly articulates the storm of emotions that she experiences as she receives government aid for the first time. She shows the backbone Winnie lacks: “I lost my job because of the state's bad management. This time, I feel I deserve some recompense.” Throughout The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, I kept hoping that Winnie would come to a similar conclusion as a result of her captivity — that she would tell Jonathan to stuff it, sit Lacy down for some straight talk about her future, allow her last politeness to fall away and actually succeed in killing Oren. But Wagman is smarter and harder than these wishes. Her novel stays in the realm of the real and the possible. Winnie is a heroine for the new, shrunken economy; she understands that the current American pathos demands small dreams and smaller hopes. When Winnie’s family convenes in the novel’s last scene, there is no resolution or reconciliation. It’s the same old again: “The same old blue sky, the same old ex-husband, the same old young beautiful wonderful daughter babbling.”

    The reader can hope that Winnie will attempt corrective training of her most beloved creatures, as she has with Oren, reinforcing positive behavior with kindness and discouraging threats with negative consequences — some of them reciprocal physical attacks. But while captivity temporarily enables Winnie to stand up for herself, it seems unlikely that she will carry her new skills back into her old life. Reunited with Winnie, Lacy is as banal and oblivious as ever, Jonathan as casually cruel, commenting on her newfound celebrity as a survivor: “You could really be someone.” Winnie’s response — “I am someone, she thought, I always was” — sounds like newfound self-esteem. But it is not spoken aloud. Unlike Cookie, who undergoes a dramatic personality shift by the end of the novel, Winnie’s return to Lacy and Jonathan sees her falling back into the roles of helpmeet, good listener, and doormat. This put-upon life, she recognizes in Wagman’s profoundly dark ending, is what she wants — what she is. Winnie craves stability so deeply that she happily suffers self-negation, because it is necessary for her family’s care and feeding. Wagman doesn’t bother with claptrap about transformed relationships or new leases on life. She tells the truth: love remains, stubborn, immovable, never exactly what we dream it to be.



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