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Why Choose a Dog for the Narrator, and How I Came up with the Character of Molly

Updated: Jan 16

In the 1990s, at the same time I was sharing work with the poet, Lynn McGee, I was teaching linked courses with a professor in the Biology Department at my college. He taught the science in his courses, and I taught the original source materials, including among others the works of Charles Darwin. He wrote that amazing, and amazingly persuasive, article about animal ethics entitled "The Origin of the Moral Sense," which quite frankly astounded me when I read it. In it he shatters notions of human exceptionalism, and the entire humanist tradition going back to Plato, which posited the idea that "man is the measure of all things." Until reading Darwin's article I hadn't quite understood as consciously that animals have as empathic and as ethical a sense as humans, which Darwin documented. That led to a lot of reading on the subject of animal sentience, animal minds, animal languages––I spent a summer reading about human and avian speech for example, the similarities between the two––until I ended up developing a course on Post-Humanist Literature. In that class we read Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am, Timothy Morton's HumanKind, Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction, and many others. For anyone who knows those works, all of which argue against the notions of anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism, Molly makes all the sense in the world. So when it came to writing The Lede I was already well versed in the literature that made an animal a likely choice.

As to why I chose Molly for the novel, the reasons are many. For one, a human narrator wouldn't have given me the chance to analyze human foibles nearly as easily because a human narrator would have been too identified, so to speak, with its subjects. As a nonhuman animal, Molly maintains a more objective perspective. What's more, because Molly belongs to the family at the heart of the story she also possesses an insider's view. Which is why a donkey or a horse would not have served the purpose as well. Dogs and cats, and some birds, live with humans and know them intimately. They observe us and know our strengths and weaknesses. What sets a dog apart is it lives in part at the end of a leash, or as the people in Great Britain say say, a lead––hence the play on words in The Lede to Our Undoing. I wanted to think about a leash or lead as a metaphor for the way all of nature is tethered, or leashed, to the actions of human beings. In that way Molly herself is allegorical. She even remarks a couple times, Nature and I are one. That she is ultimately put down by the family in the story makes a statement.

What's more, in the novel I wanted to think about the act of storytelling. As a literature professor, teaching stories for a living, it's difficult not to come to the conclusion that storytelling is one of the most central activities that sentient beings engage in. We know that even bees relay to their hive-mates where, in what direction, and how far away they have to travel to find pollen, which is a kind of storytelling. For humans, and again no doubt for other beings, storytelling occurs in our dreams at night. In sleep we spin tales that could out-do any tale we could find in The One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. What's more, when someone asks a simple question like, How was your day? we immediately go into not just narrative but editorial mode. A talking robot might respond, I walked down the stairs; I turned right; I walked 300.3 meters to the stairs of the subway; I descended the stairs––and so on. But a person becomes a narrator-editor, making decisions about the main elements, the main actors, and main themes. So narration is a thing we do many times a day. With Molly I wanted to extend that thinking to the role of a storyteller in a novel, that is a narrator, making two key points. First, all narrators are mutts, mongrels of cultural voices that are distilled in a single voice. And second, all narrators belong to a class of zombies, if you will, a cadre of talking-dead. A book is made of bare matter. And a narrator is no more than part of that lump. Yet each time we open a book the narrator somehow comes to life, in a way in which it is both dead (matter) and alive (speaking voice) at the same time. The only way to illustrate that was by having Molly speak from the grave, which is a metaphor for any book generally. Open it and it speaks. It tells a story.

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