by Johanna Drucker
Koalas work in the construction industry. Coyotes run for school board. Armadillos breakdance. Prairie dogs gamble. Lemurs sell jewelry. Silverfish volunteer to take notes for crows gathering oral histories (this doesn’t end well). Giraffes develop a passion for flute playing. They partner with little jerboas that finger the notes by hopping about and pressing their cheeks against the flute holes.
I haven’t laughed so much while reading a novel in a very, very long time. And yet, Johanna Drucker’s Downdrift is completely serious. She sets the tone and intent in an early scene:
“The squirrels are tired of the purpose-driven life, sick of storing nuts against the barren winter. Suddenly they are addicted to the luxury of squandering their energy in useless production and consumption.”
In the “downdrift” of the title, animals increasingly take on human characteristics and behaviors. As the title suggests, this is a move backward in the evolutionary cycle. The “drift” of the title is the haphazard nature of their downward spiral. One species makes a rapid evolutionary leap, while another moves incrementally. In the animal kingdom as on a sandy shoal at the mouth of a river, downdrift is a form of erosion.
The two main characters are a Massachusetts calico named Callie and an unnamed lion on the Kenya grasslands. Something in the downdrift drives them to leave their homes and search for each other. Their journeys are narrated by an archaeon, a genderless single-celled microorganism that is networked around the globe, giving it an omniscient vantage point for observing the downdrift.
“The hyenas are good at many things. They recycle foil with a great passion, flattening its convoluted mass into worried surfaces that they read as if an augury. The rhinos keep them around for amusement, even if they have to police their behavior at times…. After all, the hyenas are helpful to them in many ways. For instance, they have an uncanny ability to assess inventory and are involved in what they consider to be a cargo cult.”
As animals become self-aware, natural law must be replaced with something more formal. Is it right for a lost suburban housecat to hunt down and eat a mouse that has become capable of communicating its emotions through an ecstatic dance on a piece of toast? Laws must be written, regulations promulgated, lines drawn. Under pressures both legal and social, Callie quickly becomes a vegetarian, falling off the wagon in only the most hungry, desperate circumstances, as at a hidden tide pool writhing with minnows.
Drucker applies concepts from popular culture to animal behavior, at times using the language of bureaucracy to bring it all together in an uncanny absurdity that still seems familiar. In one scene, a goat looks up from the newspaper he is eating to read aloud to a group of beavers about the emerging new narcissism disease:
“The beavers, sounding the alarm and fearing for contagion, scream a warning about the ‘blue-eyed syndrome!’ Callie takes advantage of the uproar to scoop up a few more yams and yellow squash, which helps to calm her homicidal urge to attack the rodents. The goat who started the whole mess takes pleasure in the random chaos of the scene. Though he pretends to be a political pundit, he is really a nihilist at heart, and confusion provides him almost as much pleasure as consuming the last of the news.”
Reading Downdrift put me in mind of Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis (1997) and Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925). Both are sci-fi-adjacent, speculative, satirical, brilliant, and heartbreaking. Animals take on our characteristics and behaviors with tragic results that reveal our human failings. What sets Downdrift apart is that humans are almost invisible in Drucker’s text, irrelevant to the story beyond their general evolutionary influences. As the book comes to a close we get one final look at the lion:
“Nobility is ascribed to him by humans, but their love of charismatic creatures spawns from their own aspirations. They adopt the animals as role models, as if the animal kingdom is a metaphor whose purpose is symbolic, not lived or real.”
This is the powerful eco-fiction ethic at the heart of Downdrift. Animals do not exist for our purposes. Their lives have value and meaning beyond our ability to see or comprehend them. Many other animals were here before homo sapiens emerged. They will, unless we make some terribly colossal mistake, remain long after we are gone, living their lives on their terms.
Bronwyn Mauldin writes fiction and poetry, and creates zines. She will be an Artist in Residence at Denali National Park and Preserve in summer 2018. More at bronwynmauldin.com.