Winner of the seventh Starcherone Prize for innovative fiction, Sarah Falkner’s Animal Sanctuary certainly tests the boundaries of fiction, or more accurately, asks if fiction should have any boundaries at all. Those expecting a traditional linear narrative will be surprised upon beginning Animal Sanctuary.
In this post-modern story, Falkner utilizes many of the same techniques a visual artist might when creating a collage. There are both literary and non-literary forms at work here: Interviews, textbook passages, newspaper clippings, and movie scripts all make an appearance. The book is also full of shifting perspectives, very abrupt changes in time and place, and sometimes, characters are revealed, never making another appearance again, which can make reading the book a bit disorienting.
At times, Falkner’s book references itself in some interesting ways, and the reader begins to understand some of the motivations behind the form of the book. Kitty Dawson is the most consistent character throughout the story, the one whom readers get to know best, but it is in an interview with Albert Wickwood that we learn some of the reasons why Falkner chose the form that she did. In chapter 4, “Nature Films” the director Albert Wickwood is being interviewed regarding his recent film, A Man’s Best Friend: “The plot of A Man’s Best Friend is absurd on paper, but of course many films succeed precisely because the plot eventually steps aside and lets other things be accomplished. In the case of this film, the fact that aside from lengthy protracted scenes of chaos, not a whole lot actually happens—and the underlying reasons behind what does happen are never bothered about—the death of plot eventually permits the viewer to focus on other details…” (63-64).
Here, Wickwood discusses the tension often present between form and content. He argues that content often takes a backseat to form, that the plot is often secondary to the experience one garners while reading a particular piece, which is certainly what happens with Animal Sanctuary.
Further on in the text, in Chapter 6, “Film Theory” the author sheds a bit more light upon what is happening in the book. She includes an explanation of negative capability, a concept originally explained in a letter written by the poet John Keats in December of 1817. Keats said that negative capability is “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Falkner reframes this concept in the following description:
“You perhaps are a bit troubled or made uneasy by your mix of feelings…you don’t realize it, but in fact, you have a skill, and you will in the future make use of your ability to hold balanced in your head all at the same time two or more ideas about a situation that might seem to conflict with or contradict one another” (99).
Reading Animal Sanctuary is certainly an experience in negative capability, as the reader tries to create a balance between and make sense out of many competing artistic methods, and unconventional storytelling techniques.
Falkner also concerns herself with animal rights; the control humans have over animals, and the similarities between humans and animals, which humans often forget. There are certain times in the text when the reader is left to wonder if the “animal” is a metaphor for the artist. Both are often misunderstood, and treated as outsiders. Our identities are often misconstrued, and artists, like animals, are often at the mercy of others. Indeed, the book never strays too far away from itself, never forgets that it is a piece of art. Falkner may be an animal activist but she is always an artist first and foremost.
***This review can also be found at Gently Read Literature