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The Highs and Lows of Earnestness in “Filthy Animals”

The Highs and Lows of Earnestness in “Filthy Animals”

  • A review of Brandon Taylor's new short story collection, "Filthy Animals"

After bursting onto the literary scene with last year’s Real Life, Brandon Taylor is back with another book—this time a collection of stories called Filthy Animals. Filthy Animals sees Taylor revisit many of the same themes that he first tackled in Real Life, with many characters being scientists or mathematicians, both since-reformed and unrepentant, as well as a wide variety of characters who struggle with how they fit into their relationships or sexuality. Unfortunately, despite offering a handful of scenes that sing, much of the collection languishes, too often missing the mark on the balance between subtlety and earnestness.

Filthy Animals contains 11 stories, though from the first story on, every other story continues the same narrative thread, feeling as much like a novella punctuated by asides as a collection of isolated stories. This larger narrative follows Lionel, a suicide survivor, as he attempts to find a new place within regular life and academia, and balance the difficult relationship he strikes up with Charles and Sophie—two dancers in an open relationship.

Taylor’s motifs through the rest of the stories sit in a similar vein, with many dealing with complicated interpersonal relationships, sexuality and desire, as well as various outpourings of emotion, but all too often these feel more recycled than cohesive throughlines. More than one character gets a paragraph describing their thirst after greedily downing a glass of water. Christianity is invoked explicitly in a number of places throughout the book, most prominently in a story that has characters referencing the Lord before culminating in a Cain-esque attack.

Lionel first becomes entangled with Charles after meeting at a party, where a distasteful jab from Charles ends up creating a scene. The two reconcile quickly though, and their connection grows as both prefer to seek the margins. Sophie, ostensibly in a relationship with Charles, quickly inserts herself into the mix with the two, splitting off as Charles leaves to chase down Lionel to spend the night with him.

Charles and Sophie are an enigmatic pair, equal parts alluring and off-putting, representative of many of Taylor’s characters. Both are prone to rapid mood swings, as noticed by Lionel right from the start, as a combative interaction between the couple leads to cuddling later. Charles reads aggressively in his first interactions with Lionel, but mellows out almost immediately. The stories themselves seem prone to such shifts at times, as interactions change tenor on a dime and back again. Occasionally, Taylor seems to seek an impact with this abruptness, only to shy away from it in other stories.

Perhaps it’s partly this volatility that draws Lionel and a few other characters to Charles and Sophie. Despite the catalyst coming from Charles, it’s Sophie who turns out to be the more pernicious of the two. Malicious and flippant, she winds more than one character around her finger only to cast them aside later. She continues to exert pressure on Charles and Lionel even after the both of them sleep together, leveraging this interaction to great effect.

Their relationship only gets murkier from there, a mire only deepened by Lionel’s personality and response. Lionel is extremely insecure, though of course, his struggles with mental health and belonging at large are well documented. Still, this manifests itself in weird ways on the page, as Lionel hyper-analyzes events as he’s in them, second-guesses the choices he makes, and yet this sort of scrutiny is more broad than deep.

This is an issue that is felt throughout the book, materializing in different forms. Taylor is a writer that wears his heart on his sleeve—for better or for worse—but at times seems to get lost between genuine vulnerability and nuance. Exposition is heavily featured, as characters are as likely to relay their trauma than detail the ways it affects them. In other instances, he seems to pull his punches rather than lay them bare. Multiple stories hinge on moments of intimacy or violence, but these are as likely to take place off the page as they are to take place on it.

When Taylor’s at his best, the work soars. Several stories contain a beautiful aside or two that deepens the narrative. And when everything comes together, the result is remarkable.

For my money, the most powerful story in the collection is called “Mass,” which concerns Alek—a dancer peer of Charles and Sophie—and another victim to Sophie’s capriciousness. Opening in a doctor’s office, Taylor beautifully conveys the fraught relationship the dancer characters have with their bodies, the tenuous connection between joy and a job. After receiving an inconclusive diagnosis about a lingering cough, Alek recalls his tense relationship with his brothers, dance, and Sophie.

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Over the course of the story, Alek describes his short-lived relationship with Sophie, before she returned to Charles. He idolizes her in a sense, due not only to his romantic longing, but also for her talent, the ease to which dancing comes to her. His view of Sophie is of their honeymoon relationship, and her excellent abilities in class, but we as the reader have in many ways a deeper understanding of Sophie than Alek does: her impulsivity, her manipulativeness, her cat-like maliciousness. It’s a bitter irony, and one that Taylor wields extremely well, only achievable through the conversation between the stories in the collection.

And despite being the most devastating story in the collection, it’s also perhaps the quietest, focusing almost solely on Alek’s thoughts and fears, the sacrifices he’s made, the things he’s lost. Taylor allows the story to simmer, building emotion carefully without feeling the need to shoehorn in a crescendoing attack or sexual encounter. Instead, Alek stews slowly, reminiscing on the happiness he remembers in his time with Sophie, deliberating on whether or not to consult his imposing doctor brother Grigori about his current condition.

It’s a story worth the price of admission, which only makes the lows of the collection stick out further. There’s a few groan-inducing lines, and all too often the narrative is wielded more like a hammer than a scalpel. But when everything falls in order, the effect is breathtaking. There is a distinct talent on display in Filthy Animals; I only wish Taylor trusted himself and his readers more to know the delicateness of the dance is what keeps us coming back for more.

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

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