by Owen Schalk
The short story “Lagomorph,” which appears in Alexander MacLeod’s collection, Animal Person, is told from the perspective of David, a narrator who is alienated from himself and the external world. The reasons for his alienation seem personal: his marriage has ended in separation and his children have moved out, leaving him alone with too much time on his hands. The locus of his alienation, however, is his pet rabbit, a liminal creature who embodies David’s feeling of estrangement from his own life.
By constructing David’s alienation around the figure of the rabbit, “Lagomorph” concerns itself with the alienation that builds out of estranged personal relationships, the ways human beings view themselves in relation to other living things, and specifically, the alienation that results from the defamiliarization of naturalized categories of thought. As a result, MacLeod’s exploration of his narrator’s interiority expands into a meditation on concepts, categories, and the privileging or de-privileging of human agency—a process that environmental scholar Taylor Eggan refers to as “the ecological uncanny.”
Throughout the story, MacLeod constructs the rabbit, Gunther, as a being defined by his inability to be concretely labelled. The man selling Gunther declares that “[r]abbits are right there, you know, right on that line…You either want to be friends with them or you want to kill them and eat them for your supper” (6). But before adopting Gunther, David thinks, “Maybe a rabbit is almost like a cat” (5). He also notes that “you can never be sure where you stand relative to a rabbit” (2). David’s inability to define Gunther by the biological categories available to him—he is not a cat, but like a cat—brings into focus the destabilization of previously fixed categories at the heart of David’s alienation.
Over the course of the story, David is preoccupied with finding the correct words to encapsulate concepts, people, and relationships. He states, “I never thought of myself as an animal person,” nor did he grow up in a “pet family” (3). He also notes that he preferred the term “partnership” to “marriage”: “We felt like a partnership described our situation better…But I’m not sure what terminology you could use to describe what we are now” (3). Furthermore, after adopting Gunther, he is fascinated to learn new terminology related to the species such as “altricial” (a species that is undeveloped at birth) and “binky” (a jump rabbits do when excited).
David’s fixation on words relates to his focus on auditory expression. At the story’s beginning, he notes that the rabbit’s inability to make a sound is the reason he feels so unnerved in its presence. In Gunther’s silence––his refusal to speak a word and concretize the relationship between them––the rabbit draws David’s attention to the fact that the world is not his to define, that forces external to his perception––a pet, a spouse, a child––have specific realities wherein they read and define him as well. Staring into Gunther’s eyes, David thinks:
I know that he is reading me at the same time––and doing a better job of it–picking up on all my subconscious cues and even the faintest signals I do not realize I am sending out…I need this rabbit to find words, or whatever might stand in for words. I need him to speak, right now, and tell me exactly what the hell is happening (2-3).
David’s alienation from the rabbit’s world relates to the concept of the “ecological uncanny” outlined by environmental scholar Taylor Eggan. Mixing Freud’s concept of the “uncanny,” which is simultaneously familiar and strange, with literary ecocriticism, Eggan posits that the supposed barrier between human beings and the natural world is an ideological construction that, once punctured, does not always inspire awe in the human subject. Human beings are generally socialized in a cultural climate that leads “to [an] understanding of Nature as little more than a mirror of ourselves, reflecting our desires” (14). However, the ecological uncanny describes “the strange (and hence estranging) way in which [n]ature persistently defies our desire for it to act as a mirror” (16).
Eggan writes: “Because the ecological uncanny draws attention to human finitude, it invokes fear of the unknown. Taken to its extreme, this fear sponsors apocalyptic visions of the world’s end” (iii). This apocalyptic tone is evident in David’s early description of staring into Gunther’s eyes:
He has these albino eyes that go from a washed-out bloody pink ring on the outside through a middle layer of slushy grey before they dump you down into his dark, dark red centre…sometimes when he closes in on me like that and I’m gazing down into those circles inside of circles inside of circles, I lose my way, and I feel like I am falling through an alien solar system of lost orbits rotating around a collapsing, burning sun (1).
This passage breaks down the barrier between the rabbit and the human as David metaphorically “falls into” Gunther’s eyes, enters his brain, and finds himself in an “alien solar system.”
David sinks into the rabbit’s eyes. Barriers between seemingly fixed categories decay as the marriage, once a stable and harmonious partnership, plunges into indefinability, and David is left staring into the ecological uncanny that results from his own inability to define the world. In this way, MacLeod’s story is an example of a character’s interiority leading toward a meditation on larger themes: a lonely man who, by contemplating his rabbit, contemplates the conditionality of human experience itself.
Eggan, Taylor. The Ecological Uncanny: Estranging Literary Landscapes in Twentieth-Century Narrative Fiction. Princeton University Press. 2017.
MacLeod, Alexander. “Lagomorph.” Animal Person, McClelland & Stewart, 2022, pp. 1-27.
Owen Schalk is a writer from Winnipeg. He is a columnist at Canadian Dimension magazine, and his non-fiction writings have been published by Liberated Texts, Monthly Review, Protean Magazine, and others. His short stories have also been distributed by a variety of print and online publishers, including Fairlight Books, Sobotka Literary Magazine, and antilang.