APRIL 9, 2013
LOOK! They are watching tennis on a large television and their little heads move back and forth, back and forth, their wide eyes concentrating on the yellow ball. They are so cute, even with all the mayhem they cause. Cats kill for pleasure. Not all the time, but according to a recent University of Georgia study, about half the instances in which a kitty successfully polishes off its prey, it will simply leave the corpse to rot — will not play with it, will not bring it home, will not eat it. Domesticated house cats are responsible for the death of 12.3 billion small birds, reptiles, and mammals each year, a phenomenon worthy of investigation (part of the purpose of the study mentioned above was to figure out how to prevent cats from killing rare and migrant birds) and leading multiple news sources to conclude that if cats were killing people, 41 percent of the human population would be wiped out each year. And yet the enormous avian body count does not make online videos of kittens leaping into or out of cardboard boxes any less compelling to millions of viewers.
In his memoir/meditation Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons, Peter Trachtenberg suggests that our fascination with cats is age-old and mutual. Cats must certainly have been in the Garden of Eden, he supposes, “curious about humans” but by no means fawning. It was the dogs who simply “liked humans — Adam, especially, who threw him sticks.” Still, like everybody else, felines followed us out of the Garden. At one point they were gods in Egypt. At various others we accused them of witchcraft, mostly because their curiosity and aloof nature smacked of something heretical. Then Pilgrim cats arrived in North America with the Mayflower to hunt vermin and the rest. And hundreds of years of rats, birds, and a not-too-shabby status in society have kept our felines well fed and reproducing.
For Trachtenberg, the search for his lost cat Biscuit provides a frame for many interesting and well-researched departures, including the imminent one of F., his wife. Another Insane Devotion is, at its core, a meditation on why we love, and when it comes to cats, there is a lot of love to go around. To return briefly to the University of Georgia study, there are slightly less than 85 million domesticated pet cats in the United States today. Of those, about 50 percent are allowed outdoors — ostensibly to roam, get some exercise, and perhaps practice their hunting skills. There are risks to this, of course: disease, poisoning, traffic. But, as Trachtenberg suggests, the biggest potential heartache in cat ownership is loss. When your cat leaves and for whatever reason doesn’t immediately return, the search begins — not just for the animal but for some kind of a lesson. Why do we love animals that are perfectly capable of surviving without humans? Why do distraught cat owners scour vast terrains, shouting names like “Fritters” or “Tiger” to no avail? These folks will torture themselves imagining the worst.
Sandra Cisneros also tackles the problem with owning a cat in Have You Seen Marie?, a collaboration with artist Ester Hernández in which a woman searches for a lost cat in the wake of her mother’s death. Interestingly, Cisneros has chosen to tell this story in the form of a fable — a children’s book for adults. Like two children, Sandra the narrator and her friend Rosalind walk the historic King William district of San Antonio, asking neighbors for information on Marie. Our narrator is haunted by thoughts of Marie in possibly dire straights, defenseless against a larger, cruel world — not unlike an orphan — and the missing cat allows Sandra to return to a version of her child self. If Marie is about an adorable cat gone astray, it is also about our utter inability to tell stories about the missing without inadvertently telling stories about ourselves. Perhaps there is no other way to honestly speak to this loss. When our cats go missing, we can only imagine them as helpless, as we would be. Maybe that’s why cats make perfect metaphors for every loss. We forget they don’t need us as much as we need them. And that is pretty much mourning in a nutshell.
Both Trachtenberg and Cisneros cannot help but succumb to extended metaphor, to the fallacy inherent to their subject: the cat becomes at once greater than itself and wholly lost, drowned in its metaphoric possibilities.
Another Insane Devotion is a book about divorce, marriage, loss, and insecurity, as well as the unpleasantness of foster children — and, yes, it’s about cats too. Trachtenberg deftly maneuvers between the personal, the historical, and the philosophical, so it’s not unusual for his narrative to jump from depictions of cats in the Middle Ages to a consideration of 19th-century Continental dowries. And for the most part Trachtenberg makes it work. His intelligence and wit as a writer carry the book when structure and story fail. While many a writer goes in search of himself, a reader is more likely to go with him looking for a cat. Trachtenberg finds out Biscuit is missing (from possibly the worst pet-sitter ever) while he’s away from town, and despite being broke, decides to journey toward his otherwise empty home in order to search for her:
If she’s alive and somewhere near the house, she’s more likely to respond to my voice […] It’s stupid and sentimental, but she’s the one thing or creature I can’t bear to lose. Which may be a message that one must be prepared to lose everything.
Spoken like a man who’s recently misplaced a spouse and a cat. The story unfolds, although at times too slowly, and eventually we learn what fates befell our narrator’s marriage and Biscuit. Through a history of cats and lovers, we learn that the orator is a touch maudlin and probably too self-aware, yet it’s hard to hold it against him. Trachtenberg is at his best when he looks inward. He turns down an attractive photographer’s sexual advances, and in doing so argues passionately and compellingly why it’s the only option he really had. Instead of succumbing to loyalty de facto, he chooses to question the origins of this loyalty. To really look. And beneath each rock is yet another rock.
Another Insane Devotion can at times be maddeningly digressive. Afloat from topic to topic, the reader may find herself confused as to what all this has to do with anything (Apollo is like Augustine is like cats? How?), and yet the prose entertains. Trachtenberg spins a good yarn — why bother trying to unknot it? At the heart of the text is a complex and emotional mind working out some of the deeper questions of love, attachment, and loneliness (this is how Apollo is like Augustine is like cats). There are numberless such moments in Another Insane Devotion, crystalline instances of precise historical record shaped by imaginative sympathy and introspection. Trachtenberg invites the reader to consider the heartache and inevitability of loss, and he does it innocently, through cats and a couple of fresh rabbit trails.
Cisneros’s Have You Seen Marie? is quite the opposite, in both intention and execution. It reads like a children’s book about two women, searching through the author’s San Antonio neighborhood for her lost cat. Upon arrival in the Texan city, the titular Marie decides to make a run for it. As Cisneros and her friend Rosalind search the streets in vain, they encounter neighbors willing to help:
Here, Cisneros’s tale highlights the futility of searching for anything lost, and the diversity of responses elicited. While an addition to the prayer list is helpful, response to this kind of aid can vary from grateful to frustrated. Yet Cisneros does not come down one way or the other. Instead of lingering on the different platitudes offered by strangers in the wake of Marie’s escape, she accepts them all at face value. One almost craves Trachtenberg’s depth here, but Cisneros resists and quickly moves on to the next person on the block, who offers a “river search on horseback,” but not for a week. By the fifth neighbor, the pattern is clear: everyone wants to help, but on their own terms.
The author’s point is not subtle. Loss is loss. Grief is grief. Having recently lost her mother, Cisneros wastes no time in clearly linking herself to the cat:
I felt like crying and taking off, too.
My mother had died a few months
before. I was fifty-three years old and
felt like an orphan.
I was an orphan.
Like the cat, she too felt overwhelmed in a strange new place (albeit an emotional one). Like the cat, she too needed to hide from the world until she was ready to emerge from that place. But the cat metaphor shifts as the text moves forward. The analogy transitions from Cisneros as Marie to Cisneros as Rosalind, desperately searching for something lost and finding comfort in the community’s (at times impractical) aid.
Have You Seen Marie?’s afterword further cements Cisneros’ thoughts on death:
In the spring after my mother died, a doctor wanted to prescribe pills for depression. “But if I don’t feel,” I said, “how will I be able to write?” I need to be able to feel things deeply, good or bad, and wade through an emotion to the other shore, toward my rebirth. I knew if I put off moving through grief, the wandering between worlds would only take longer. Even sadness has its place in the universe.
This is possibly a great book for someone in mourning. But for those who are not, at times the prose seems too obvious, too belabored, while simultaneously oversimplifying the pain of loss. The lovely illustrations by Ester Hernández provide a realism that Cisneros’s tale lacks. Though written in the style of a children’s book, Have You Seen Marie? is clearly not. Have You Seen Marie? is written for adults, for “orphans in midlife.” One cannot help but suspect that Marie, hidden beneath the house the whole time, may have a better tale. One with dead birds, mice, and other rodentia — one with teeth.
This is the problem, of course, with cat metaphors. Cats are too complex to be any one thing. And when we try to make them epic, we inevitably fail. Cats, after all, are cats.
And we love them, even if they’re evil. We love to watch cats. We love to own them (about 10 million more people own cats over dogs according to a 2007 report). The cat-days of this past summer held great news for feline aficionados: the University of Georgia released its study on kitten-massacres, the very first Internet Cat Video Festival launched in Minneapolis, and even computers were keeping an eye on cats when a Google–Stanford collaboration connected a thousand computers, plugged them into the Internet, and taught them to identify cat videos and cat faces. And why not? Cats playing the piano, cats staring through ceilings, and cats getting in and out of crates dominate the YouTube ratings. One would think that all possible cat performances captured on video had been exhausted — that we’d be sick of watching them, of talking about them, of writing about them. But we aren’t. If anything, Trachtenberg and Cisneros prove that we are only sucked in all the more. Like kitties watching tennis balls fly by, our heads move back and forth, back and forth.