Monday
Nov032014

Invisible Beasts

By Sharona Muir


 

Bellevue Literary Press
July 2014
978-1934137802

Reviewed by Nora Boydston


 

For a book that is at least superficially interested in categories, it's surprisingly tricky to find a category in which to place Sharona Muir's Invisible Beasts. First, let's start with what it is not.

The book is comprised of tales narrated by Sophie, an amateur naturalist who has the rare ability to see a whole host of animals that are otherwise invisible to humans. It's not a novel, at least not in the traditional sense, even though it has a fallible protagonist and universal themes. But it also feels inaccurate to label it a short story collection because many of the stories don't rise above the vignette and are essentially plotless, though beautifully written. It is certainly not propaganda because, despite the narrator's (and author's?) aim to convince readers of something, it doesn't present a concrete, identifiable cause behind which one could rally.

It seems to fit the definition of a bestiary: "a descriptive or anecdotal treatise on various real or mythical kinds of animals, especially a medieval work with a moralizing tone" (Oxford American Dictionary). However, the incidents Sophie recounts are so intensely personal—since she's the only person who can see the creatures—and her own involvement in the encounters is essential to their telling. The contemporary setting and emphatic focus on science, coupled with a decidedly modern gonzo narrator, feels anachronistic to a medieval genre.

What it might most closely resemble is a love letter. Full of language that is at once passionate and precise, flowery and full of information, the book is bursting at the seams with a strange duality, a dizzying mash-up of romanticism and science. But more on love later.

Sophie leads the reader through a Fibonacci-spiraled taxonomy of invisible animals. There are common beasts such as The Couch Conch (which sometimes appears in one's bedroom the morning after lovemaking, reflecting on its shell scenes from the prior evening's amorous exploits) and Truth Bats (tiny bats which cling unnoticed to the bodies of truthful people, only to be scared off when one tells a lie). There are also imperiled and rare beasts such as the Foster Fowl, a peacock-like bird that will raise any egg placed in its nest and is somehow able to teach "a duck to swim, an owl to hunt, and a vulture to scavenge." Sophie also tells us about Grand Tour Butterflies, which display stunning pictures of the far-off places they've visited in the patterns on their wings.

Along the way, Sophie is intermittently advised by her sister Evie, a 'real' scientist studying, among other natural phenomena, soil gases, using a fascinating coiled contraption affectionately dubbed "The Worm." Although Evie's unable to the see the invisible creatures herself, she (and the rest of her family) "accepts the odd-sighted person without quibbles or qualms, in the spirit of generous tolerance and fun that animates the scientific community." She aptly and patiently provides both foil and complement to Sophie's temperament and endeavors.

At various points, Sophie opines that if human beings knew about the existence of this entire world of unseen animals living amongst them, they would surely kill or enslave them immediately. But she doesn't claim to be better than anyone else. Sophie, too, can be shortsighted, acting unthinkingly. Although her tone occasionally teeters on the edge, she somehow manages to stay just this side of the thin line between earnest and holier-than-thou. What saves her from veering into cloyingness is that she can't even stop herself from destroying what she sets out to protect: she believes she may have been the cause of an entire species' extinction. Instead of delving into self-loathing, Sophie doesn't dwell upon her shortcomings. Aside from one melodramatic sentence about "the weighing of souls," she states her mistakes and faults plainly, then moves on. Regarding mass extinction (not only inevitable, but already in progress), her philosophy seems to be less, Won't somebody please think of the children?! and more, Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

In Invisible Beasts, Muir has penned a not-so-subtle call for awareness, for attention to be paid to the world around us. This little treatise peeks its head out from the midst of our decidedly indoor, inwardly focused society in which nature itself is becoming an increasingly smaller and smaller niche interest. It is published by Bellevue Literary Press, a non-profit publisher working "at the intersection of the arts and sciences because [they] believe that science and the humanities are natural companions for understanding the human experience." Muir's intellectually exuberant, impassioned writing fits Bellevue's mission statement almost too perfectly. Like any worthy scientist, she raises questions but doesn't provide easy answers. Instead, she implores her readers to open their eyes, their hearts, and their imaginations, because "without imagination, we can't stop extinction."

The result is a head-on collision of heavy-handed romantic prose and detailed scientific description, both of which are equally rapturous. In addition to the invisible beasts, Muir also describes the biological processes of some real animals. She writes these real animals almost more passionately than the imaginary ones, so much so that it's sometimes hard to tell which scientific facts are real and which are invented. In one story she explains the respiratory system of spiders, called "book lungs," which sounded so fanciful I had to look them up. (They're real.)

Muir's most prominent theme is an ancient and familiar one—that human beings are animals. Sophie states plainly, "It's the belief of a scientific observer of animals. I'm animal through and through." But the more interesting themes may be only a little deeper beneath the surface.

For most of the book, Sophie is alone, literally but also romantically. She has neither lover nor partner. Once she meets a man, Sam, who piques her interest, but he is a "devoted naturalist" who studies visible animals and lives in a "parallel, nonintersecting universe." Clearly, it would never work between them.

It's not until the epilogue when the idea of a real-life love is introduced and even then, Sophie is alone in bed, save for her dog, reading a love letter, the majority of which seems to be recounting an old fable about Aristophanes. Sophie's ability to see the unseen isolates her—from other naturalists, from potentials lovers, even from her sister. What does it mean for her to be alone in this gift?

Still, it all comes down to love for Sophie. Which may be why the book refuses to fit neatly into a category, especially the one it most closely mimics, whose main goal is to moralize nature. Sophie does not seek to moralize anything, despite her momentary lapses into an adjacent tone. On the contrary, she seeks to emphasize the animal nature inherent in all humans, and in turn, the love inherent in all of the animal kingdom.