Felines, Nothing More Than Felines
On the meowmoir.
I don’t know that I’d want to be married to the guy myself, but I think it’d be fun to hang out. Paging through Another Insane Devotion, I thought often of the bit in Catcher in the Rye where Holden identifies a truly good book as one that leaves you wishing the author were a friend you could call on the phone. This book belongs to a related category: It is truly not bad, and I wish I could have had the phone calls in lieu of the literary experience. Here is the intrinsic problem, compounded by the book’s meandering nature: The cats all blur together. It isn’t difficult to sort out Biscuit from Bitey from Ching if you pay close attention to their antics, but it is difficult to pay close attention to their antics, because they are another person’s cats, and I don’t even pay such close attention to my own. I love him in an atmospheric way, but I am not sure that were he a person he’d be the kind of person I’d want to have a beer with. I initially thought to write this piece in his voice, but it came out sounding, in its harrowing lack of affect, rather like The Stranger.
It is not clear whether Trachtenberg understands the essential sociopathy of the species. When I read that young Gattino had “a look of jaunty toughness, like one of those skinny Neapolitan kids who grows up to be a prizefighter or a gigolo,” I felt that Trachtenberg was trying to put one over on himself. The phrase catches a truth about movement and bearing and then creeps up on its little feet to a fib about mentality. You can hug an Italian playboy without his making that expression elsewhere described by Marilynne Robinson: “Her ears were flattened back and her eyes were patiently furious.” Ian McEwan somewhere has a good one along the same lines. Actually, come to think of it, there is a lot of well-observed writing about cats in the world. This is because cats’ preferred way of interacting with humans is being observed by them.
My cat is an 8-year-old tabby. As in “The Naming of Cats”—from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, T.S. Eliot’s light-verse incitement to Andrew Lloyd Webber—he has three names. There is “the name that the family use daily”—that’s Wally. There is the “name that’s peculiar, and more dignified”—that’s Sir Walter Raleigh. I’ve always supposed that this would be the name on his registration papers, if such a thing existed for a cat born in the basement of a deli and delivered unto a couple newly living in sin.
I’ve no idea what his third name is. That’s an essential part of the existential deal. Eliot writes:
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name;
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
I’ve always supposed that we adopted Wally with the motive of turning a rental apartment into a home and to give our shacking-up a firm foundation. This is not to suggest that a cat gives good value as a practice child (though in their idleness and hauteur, they are perhaps good surrogates for teenagers). Rather, the idea was to give the home a spirit. It is essential to remember that the domestic cat domesticated itself: We didn’t set out to tame it; it just one day showed up conducting itself confidently. Same M.O. as Tom Ripley. “One can assume that they settled down, made themselves as comfortable as possible, and went about their business,” Faith McNulty wrote in 1962’s Wholly Cats. “People, on the other hand, seldom have been willing to let it go at this.”
In Another Insane Devotion, Trachtenberg writes, “The pleasure of dog ownership is having an animal that speaks your language, or a language that shares many terms with yours, like Swedish and Norwegian. A cat doesn’t speak your language.” If you believe this to be true, then it follows that the pleasure of keeping a cat is a function of this language barrier, that aloofness, the feline cloak of effanineffibility. A cat is a riddle you never get the answer to. I scoop the poop of a common sphinx.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.