Brandon Taylor’s Filthy Animals (Daunt Books Originals, 2021), which won this year’s Story Prize and was on the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist, is a collection of 11 short stories, of which a few are interlinked. While each story in this collection is chiselled to perfection and displays Taylor’s hallmark oeuvre as his characters’ arcs and their behaviours in the myriad relationships they develop over time, stand out.
In Taylor’s fiction, relationships neither get conducted in the boring, believable way they tend to do in most fiction writing, nor do they crumble under the weight of ‘meaning’ as stories about love, longing, and finding one’s place in society often seem to carry. Instead, it’s the vilest of human conduct that Taylor masterfully renders in these stories, prying open the animalistic instincts in human companionships.
He not only exposes the interiority and duality in his characters but also weaves their unsaid motivations wonderfully. Sample the first story, Potluck. Lionel — a Mathematics doctorate turned Proctor, who’s fresh out of the hospital after trying to kill himself — finds that not recognising anyone apart from the host both “a comfort and a warning”.
Why should one feel this way, you might think? Is it because Lionel is an introvert? Or a Black person? Or someone who is “difficult to talk to” — as professional dancers Sophie and Charles, whom he meets in this gathering, believe?
It may be because even though he leads what appears like a ‘mediocre’ existence, Lionel refuses to be part of the mindlessness that surrounds him, yet he partakes in the everyday because that’s what it takes to survive. For example, Lionel “was ashamed of proctoring only when he had to tell other people about it, and only when those people knew that he had once been a graduate student with good brain chemistry.”
There’s something intriguing about Taylor’s prose: it criticises without claiming a territorial hold on the viewpoint. Nor does Taylor overburden his stories with what’s expected of a Black queer writer. In comparison, consider the following two novels that become unreadable midway because their authors didn’t know how to keep their characters removed from their politics: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy.
When an author snatches away from its character the autonomy to decide for themselves or interferes with their natural progression, then such characters become unrealistic and inauthentic to read. And that’s what separates Taylor from his contemporaries: he listens to his characters’ inherent need to bring themselves out in the story, fully.
Indulge in these moments in his stories. Observing Charles, Lionel finds that Charles has the “kind of body you could only get at great personal risk. He was good-looking, in a way that seemed incongruous with ordinary life.” Or this, about unprivileged childhoods: “That was the blessing of certain childhoods. The illusion of your invincibility. Your safety. Some people didn’t know the danger they were in until years later, looking back.” These sentences convey the whole background — power imbalance, sexual tension, and need for validation — in so few words, and need no glorious explanations. There’s beauty in their muteness.
Perhaps it is in this measured way that Taylor crafts his characters that he’s able to extract raw emotions in a dialogic manner without appearing philosophical and conveys the meaning without being melodramatic. Sometimes it is the ridiculously mundane that Taylor presents in his story, and you can’t help but marvel at the observation and accompanying thought with it. Here’s one incident from Proctoring: “Lionel swirled the coffee in the cup, aware of the gesture as he performed it, knowing that it had little utility, that it was something performed to make him look a certain way, pensive, thoughtful.”
There’s something wounded in each of his characters, too, but he doesn’t let them exhibit their hurt. Be it the babysitter in Little Beast who feels “it’s a disservice to let children go on thinking the whole world can be something it cannot” or Marta in Anne of Cleves who becomes uncomfortable after meeting her ex-lover, knowing that a part of important information has escaped her: that she’ll be outed for now he knows everything. There’s unusual humour at play, too. There’s this moment when Lionel feels like laughing, wondering that he hasn’t taken “his own suicide seriously enough”.
Two stories, in particular, were gut-wrenching to read: As Though that Were Love and the titular Filthy Animals. While the choice of “Mercy Me” — the violent game that Simon and Hartjes play — is so clever in the first story that this hunger for power and superiority renders it animal recognition, in the second the palpability of violence, which doesn’t “leave any trace”, makes it a fascinating read.
I wouldn’t use the word “brave” to describe this collection, for in one of the stories Lionel says: “People called you brave for going on because it affirmed their own value system. They considered their own life worth living, and so they considered every life worthy.” It is in fact located beyond the instruments of value system and judgement.