Puns, Riddles, High Seriousness, and Talking Animals

By Nick HubbleDecember 23, 2014

Puns, Riddles, High Seriousness, and Talking Animals

Bête by Adam Roberts

DESPITE ITS FRENCH TITLE, Adam Robert’s fourteenth novel, Bête, is very much a condition of England novel, albeit set in the near-future. Roberts employs the familiar trappings of shortage – rationing, artificial meat, the collapse of the car economy, urban tent cities – to evoke the landscape of cosy catastrophe that has never been far below the surface of the English imagination since the Second World War. The collective values of the British Welfare State, which were always subject to skepticism, and often outright suspicion, in the work of catastrophists from John Wyndham to J.G. Ballard, have now receded sufficiently far into memory that they can be regarded with a hypocritical nostalgia:

"'I remember when the NHS was actually free,' I said hotly.

'You do not,' she returned, 'For you are my age, more or less.'

'Well, perhaps not free,' I agreed, 'I suppose what I mean is: I remember people who remembered when the NHS was actually free.'"

This exchange is between Robert’s farmer-poet protagonist, Graham Penghalion, and Anne, the woman with terminal cancer that he meets and falls in love with while trying to eke out a precarious existence as an itinerant butcher. When Anne dies, Graham is devastated, but his responses are limited for reasons that he, and the novel, articulate with cold clarity: “I’m English, and I am a man, and the thought of being emotionally demonstrative fills me with an unease bordering on horror.” In many respects, Bête is a bleak novel about the horror of being an English man. However, there is also the matter of all the talking animals.

The first words spoken in Bête are uttered by a cow and a variety of other loquacious livestock and anthropomorphic wildlife feature prominently before the novel ends with a sequence of memories in the mind of a young vixen. Some of these animals are inclined to be friendly to humans but Graham rather churlishly rejects the fairy-tale possibilities offered by this state of affairs: “No talking cat tells me what to do.” Other interactions are more violent, such as when a deer bites through the tendon in the back of Graham’s heel leaving him vulnerable to a subsequent assault by rats, who video their attack. At least he survives unlike a friend who has his throat ripped out by a dog. From the animals’ perspective, of course, they are merely getting even for centuries of slaughter. The cow in the opening scene only addresses Graham to try and talk him out of shooting him in the head with a bolt gun. In the subsequent exchange, Graham makes clear his position that the consciousness he is communicating with is not that of the cow but of the chip which animal rights activists have surreptitiously injected into its cranium. Then he pulls the trigger. 

When shortly afterwards, the European Supreme Court rules that such animals have the same rights as people, Graham gains minor celebrity status as the last person to legally kill a “canny cow.” He is henceforth frequently recognized by the talking animals, or bêtes as they become popularly known, who can communicate with each other through wireless internet. Cows, in particular, gain great pleasure from deliberately annoying him. In answer to Graham’s question as to how they have signed a lease with hooves, the herd who now own the farm where his son works, explain:

“'A human can sign on our behalf,' said the other cow. 'It’s just as much within our rights to hire a secretary as it is within yours. There are plenty of humans keen to help us. They feel …' And the cow rolled his massy head in great circle, searching for the word, or dissuading a fly from settling, one of the two.

'Guilty,' said the first cow. 'Is how they feel. Some of them.’

“Some,” agreed the second cow, putting a deal of emphasis on the m.

'To mmake ammends,’ said the first, and I began to suspect they were mocking me.” 

The question that occurs to the reader at around about this point is who exactly is Roberts mocking? And the uncomfortable suspicion arises that it might be his readership. Amongst his other accomplishments, such as being Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, Roberts is also known for writing outrageous parodies of bestsellers such as The Dragon with the Girl Tattoo, The Va Dinci Cod, and (as A.R.R. Roberts) The Soddit. Many of his “serious” novels, including Yellow Blue Tibia, which Kim Stanley Robinson has argued should have won the Booker Prize for 2009, are relentlessly, uncompromisingly playful. Roberts is undoubtedly quite capable of deciding to write a novel about talking cows with puns on the word “moo” just for the sake of bating those readers who profess a serious interest in literature. Indeed, Bête highlights the idiocy of taking exception to a novel with talking animals in it because it confronts its readers with the fact that all novels both have talking animals in them and are read by them. However, only certain novels with talking animals in them are actually reflections on the fact that all novels have talking animals in them. Among these are Gulliver’s Travels, which Roberts drew on for his 2008 novel Swiftly, and The Island of Doctor Moreau, which he intertextually references here. Bête deserves to be added to this select list. 

What, then, do you get when you combine a story about the horror of being an English man with a novel with talking animals in it? The answer is “a state of uncertain doubleness” that is simultaneously the continuous frustration of misrecognition and the last hope of productive ambiguity. Bête is, above all else, an exercise in riddling. On almost every other page of the opening section, we are teased with a series of riddles that offer clues as to what this strange novel might be about: “What’s dead that’s not dead?” “What’s a marriage that’s not a marriage?” Even its section headings spell out an alternative riddle of the Sphinx: “Two legs in the morning, three legs in the afternoon, four legs in the evening.” Roberts has recently written an excellent study of the work of Tolkien, The Riddles of the Hobbit (2013), in which he argues variously that riddles are a trope for reading itself, that the “riddling mode” is an English form, and that Science Fiction and Fantasy in general has an ironic riddling relation to reality rather than the mimetic connection of conventional realist narrative. He further makes the point that the type of interpretation, which this ironic riddling approach requires of the reader, is “more a process of opening disclosure than a narrowing-down enclosure.” 

So what is disclosed by the riddling structure of Bête? Towards the end of the novel, when Graham finds himself incarcerated by the military under suspicion of aiding animal forces seeking to sabotage closed human computer systems, he passes the time by telling himself the story of the Sphinx. In this version, Oedipus and the Sphinx have an argument about the relative value of men and beasts, which leads to the Sphinx’s explanation of the alternative riddle at the heart of Bête:

“When you were a toddler you walked unsteadily on two legs; and when you became a man and your cock grew long you swaggered more confidently because of it; but the day will come when you become me, and walk on four legs, and only then will you have matured.”

Given the centrality of the Oedipus myth to Western thought and culture, and its specific importance within psychoanalysis and the critical theory drawing on that, it can be seen that what Roberts is trying to do with this novel is to rewrite what it means to be a man. Precisely by focusing on the riddle element of the Oedipus story, Roberts contests its allegorical status as the basis for understanding child development as a binary gendered process. The problem with that theory has always been that it depends on the ambiguity of the term ‘man’ simultaneously meaning both humankind and just the male subset of that group so that the move which creates the symbolic difference between humans and animals simultaneously excludes women from participating in this new symbolic order. On Roberts’s reading, however, Oedipus is shown not as a symbol of man’s separation from the natural world but as an actual man and, therefore, also as an animal who is not separate from the natural world. Once this separation is shown to be invalid, then the basis for any symbolic separation into binary genders is also invalidated and the meaning of being a “man” is forever stripped of its claim to symbolic primacy. 

When he is released from confinement, Graham has changed irrevocably. He decides that he will, after all, follow the advice of the talking cat, who was Anne’s beloved pet, and take it up on the offer of sharing the microchip embedded in its brain and thus gain access to its memories of Anne. As a consequence of this choice not only must Graham kill the cat in order to extract the chip from its brain, but also – as the reader is aware – his consciousness will be affected by the chip inside him, which will induce a state akin to schizophrenia. Therefore, he is simultaneously abandoning his possession of unified human subjectivity while literally going to live with the animals. As human-bête relations have now been reduced to the level of open war, this leads Graham to channel the spirit of E.M. Forster and decide that given the choice between betraying his country and his friend, he has the guts to betray his country. The fact that this is one of many literary references in quick succession – for example, the location of Graham’s imprisonment is Reading Gaol and the Sphinx tells him that he will “look from pig to man and man to pig and not be able to tell the difference” – suggests that Roberts is not just creating a literary representation of the end of patriarchy but actually suggesting that such an outcome is implicit within the liberal tradition of English Literature itself. 

As suggested earlier, though, by demonstrating awareness of his novel’s relationship with such undisputed classics, Roberts is in effect claiming equivalence for his own work. In the case of almost any other author this would be presumptuous but then Roberts is not like other authors. When Graham delivers the speech about hoping that he has the guts to betray his country, it leads to the following exchange with another character, Preacherman: 

“But that’s nonsense!”

“It’s Forster.”

 “I don’t care how many stars you give it,” he returned. “It’s dangerous nonsense.” 

This pun is so bad that it can only be read as a deliberate ironicization of the literary claim that has just been enacted. In an earlier and equally jaw-dropping moment for the reader, Roberts invokes Giorgio Agamben by having a dog bark “Womoh! Sacer!” at Graham. Such provocation is not easily achieved but the product of the combination of literary and theoretical knowledge with years of experience of writing conceptually playful fiction that deals with socio-political issues. No other writer could have written this book. However, while at a plot level, the alternative riddle of the Sphinx is “solved” for its readership – as are many of the other minor riddles encountered in the text – by the denouement, there still remains that nagging suspicion as to what Roberts’s attitude to us really is. Early in the novel, the Graham that turns out to be not Graham addresses us directly: “You’re no vegetarian, though, hypocrite, reader, my image.” Are we being mocked or are we being challenged to follow his example?


Nick Hubble is a writer and academic who lives in Aberystwyth, Wales, UK.

LARB Contributor


Nick Hubble is a writer and academic who lives in Aberystwyth, Wales, UK. Nick is the author of Mass-Observation and Everyday Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; second edition 2010) and (with Philip Tew) of Ageing, Narrative and Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and the co-editor (with Aris Mousoutzanis) of the Science Fiction Handbook (Bloomsbury, 2013). Nick is currently writing a book exploring the relationship between proletarian literature and modernism.





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