Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys (2009) is an interesting project, a themed collection of ten short stories, each one featuring both an animal and a celebrity. It’s a quirky conceit that somehow works perfectly with Millet’s interests: environmentalism, gender politics, the encroachment of civilization on nature, animal innocence and human cruelty — all, as ever, explored with intelligent humor and insight.
As with Millet’s recent novels, the stories on offer here are intelligent, witty, dark, and often quite sad. I think the standout for me was “Sir Henry,” which manages to be a beautifully written, touching vignette about David Hasselhoff’s dogwalker, who wrestles with his moral code when one of his wealthy clients asks him to take care of his poodle after his death. “Sexing the Pheasant” amusingly depicts Madonna’s guilt after shooting a bird on a traditional British hunting expedition. Title story “Love in Infant Monkeys” is a heartbreakingly sad snapshot of the experiments of controversial scientist Harry Harlow, while “The Lady and the Dragon” depicts how a wealthy man’s obsession with Sharon Stone drives him to absurd lengths to win her heart — including buying the Komodo dragon who famously attacked her husband at the LA Zoo. I also quite enjoyed “Jimmy Carter’s Rabbit,” which posits the former president’s visit to a childhood bully, an unselfaware psychologist who misreads the reason for the visit.
Ultimately I think I prefer Millet’s work at novel length, when she has more time and latitude to explore ideas. But this is a very good collection full of solid individual stories that have a powerful cumulative effect.