People are Beastly in “Filthy Animals”

If you have forgotten all the different ways people can be terrible to each other, Brandon Taylor is here to remind you.

Welcome to Filthy Animals. The main characters in these stories are mostly students, and mostly queer; they are perpetually-frustrated and have families who do a better job of crushing their spirits than showing affection. The collection oscillates between the Midwest and the South. In “Little Beast,” Sylvia figures out her post-breakup life while nannying a difficult child. In “What Made Them Made You,” illness forces Grace to return to the care of her stifling family, hungering for a return to the personal freedoms that college afforded her. In “Anne of Cleves,” Marta explores, celebrates, and starts to come to terms with her newfound sexuality.

And then there’s Lionel. Half of the stories in this collection are set in Lionel’s world of graduate students and recovery from a suicide attempt. His stories (“Potluck” and “Meat”) bookend the collection, and while the collection may revolve around him, they contain worlds worthy of exploration on their own. There’s a story from Charles (“Flesh”), a dancer whose complicated hookup with Lionel in the first story sets their collective story in motion. There’s a story where Lionel meets Sophie, Charles’s girlfriend(ish) and dancer, for an awkward coffee (“Proctoring”). There’s a story about Alek (“Mass”), another dancer who once dated Sophie and considers how to approach his aloof family about a suspicious lump found by his doctor.

“Flesh,” “Mass,” “Meat”; Taylor lets his characters live in their physical, animal bodies. Characters are extra-aware of their hungers. More than one story has a character growling. Taylor doesn’t just keep the joys and upsets of life in his characters’ mind, either. He shows the pleasures these characters experience through their bodies, like in eating and sex. Likewise, characters’ have both emotional and physical frustrations, through illness and pain.

And oh, the varieties of pain. There is of course physical pain characters experience, through injury, through sickness, through attacks, but there is the emotional pain these characters deal with that is worse. There’s a lot of variety in terms of where the characters are in their lives, both literally and figuratively, but there is always someone who is determined to be cruel in each story. The cruelties are varied as well, as we see everything from pettiness to physical aggression to (not-so-micro) micro-aggressions. The nastiness inflicted on some of these characters are so palpable that at times I found myself physically cringing.

“All right,” Marta said. Peter did not move to get out of the car.

“I heard a rumor,” he said. “About you and… well, I heard a rumor that you’re a dyke now. Is that true?”

Marta flinched. It was such a hard word.

“Don’t be a dog, Peter. Don’t be ugly.”

“Wow,” he said. “I can’t believe it. Wow.”

This is just one of many microaggressions in these stories. Taylor effectively explores how people can suffer under racism, sexism, classism, and, most prevalently in the collection, homophobia, but the stories aren’t heavy-handed rallying cries against bigotry. They are nuanced, and there are the unmistakable effects of prejudice, but moreso the collection is about the friction that exists between people that can’t be explained through simple personality clashes. Everyone has a story, even people who are vicious “for no reason.” Taylor shows us that there are always reasons. 

Just a few words do a lot of work in Taylor’s prose. In tight phrases, he sums up entire experiences that offer both clarity as well as a little mystery. We are given just enough – only enough – to understand these phrases’ meaning. In “Flesh,” Charles thinks on a dance instructor, “an ancient choreographer about whom there were rumors.” In “As Though That Were Love,” Simon, the older lover of the violent and conflicted Hartjes, confesses that when he is sitting at the ruins of a burned-down church, “it seemed the whole world went away, all his problems, all his needs – hunger, pain, money, viral load, all of it.” And in perhaps my favorite story in the collection, “Little Beast,” Sylvia summarizes her recent breakup to an inquiring child:

“Well,” Sylvia says, scooping up handfuls of water and letting them drizzle into the girl’s hair. “He was not well. He was sick. And I was sick. And we weren’t very good together.”

“You’re sick?” the girl asks.

Oh yes, Sylvia almost says. I’m fucking sick.

Often these phrases are guarded, reflective of how little these characters want to expose their vulnerabilities to others, and even to themselves. Sometimes we know exactly what characters are thinking, and other times – especially in dialogue – we only have the words coming out of their mouths to glean what’s on their mind. What they are saying is often in direct conflict with what we have to assume they are thinking. We are as close to the characters as the characters want us to be. They desperately want to keep us at a distance, but only for protection. Their desire for closeness and vulnerability is so strong that they can only keep their emotional walls up for so long.

Because the stories are longer, and because half of them (the ones in Lionel’s world) could be considered pieces of an artfully-cut novella, Filthy Animals is a great collection for any diehard novel-readers who are nervous or otherwise skeptical to venture into short story territory. But if you’re not afraid of short stories, of a little violence, or of a lot of pain, this is still a collection to keep.

Filthy Animals
By Brandon Taylor
Riverhead Books
Published June 22, 2021