Cat People and Their Meowmoirs

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 4 2013 11:44 PM

Felines, Nothing More Than Felines

On the meowmoir.

Another Insane Devotion

Illustration by Nicole Georges.

Peter Trachtenberg’s Another Insane Devotion is a discursive essay on personal growth, a public exercise in private exorcism, and a collection of notes toward a philosophy of love. Pondering morality and memory, the author addresses Sappho, Homer, Aristotle, Descartes, Michelangelo, Proust, Ruskin, and the Gnostic gospels. He argues with the universe, anatomizes exes, dons a hairshirt or two, and by-the-by sketches Hopper-esque scenes of small-town strangeness and urban alienation. The book inspired many thoughts in me, foremost that I need to clean the litter box. Another Insane Devotion is a cat memoir.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Would meowmoir work as a coinage? Is there need of a coinage anyway? After all, though the Internet loves to laugh aloud at a fuzzy Felis catus, book publishing has declared the dog its best friend; as Trachtenberg observes, “It’s easier to write about a dog than a cat. With dogs, there’s always something going on.” It seems possible that with cats—excepting craps taken territorially in an infant’s crib—there is always nothing going on. Or, to steal an idea from an earlier meowmoir—Willie Morris’ My Cat Skip McGee—dogs are about doing and cats are about being, pure being.

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Curled up in the sunbeam of Another Insane Devotion is Biscuit. Biscuit! Here comes Biscuit on the first page, ginger-furred and snot-faced, a female just rescued from the wild. The cat greets Trachtenberg with a possessive lick of the hand: “She was claiming me.” There Biscuit goes, on the third page, wandering off from Trachtenberg’s upstate New York house while he and his wife are away. Alerted of the crisis by a cat-sitter manifesting depraved oafishness, he spends money that he does not have to fly home from North Carolina and mount a search.

This quest constitutes the book’s centerpiece, a semi-suspenseful narrative maypole gradually wrapped in ribbons of digression, with the author telling the stories of his domestic life in self-aware circles, lit-critical coils, and downward spirals. It's obvious from the jump that Biscuit is not the only one lost in a dark wood. Trachtenberg depicts himself as a bit of a stray, which perhaps explains his desire to take in so many of them. When Biscuit arrived, there was already a dementia-addled old tom named Ching and a black shorthair named Bitey. And then there was one-eyed Gattino, a runt born near a writers’ retreat in Tuscany. Trachtenberg and his wife (whom he calls “F.”) had lost Gattino the year before Biscuit wandered off.

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Gattino disappeared like the promise of domestic optimism, and he haunts the entirety of the narrative. Also, he haunts the entirety of an entirely different narrative: F. is Mary Gaitskill, and she published an essay about the Italian cat in Granta. Is this a first? Has it ever happened before that both halves of a sundered literary couple have written about their pet? (Did Edmund Wilson ever own an actual bunny? If so, did Mary McCarthy ever boil it?)

The Gaitskill-Trachtenberg marriage has yielded a nuanced game of he said-she said. Reading their accounts side-by-side is like watching a version of Divorce Court where the bailiff doubles as a couples therapist and the judge actively encourages irrelevant testimony. Take a moment to admire the blame-game trick shot of a moment where Trachtenberg, taking credit for the name Gattino, curses himself for causing “F.” to bond with a sickly animal from across the Atlantic; meanwhile, Gaitskill claims that “Peter” wanted to call the cat “McFate,” and that she changed his mind: “McFate was too big and heartless a name for such a small fleet-hearted creature. ‘Mio Gattino,’ I whispered, in a language I don’t speak to a creature who didn’t understand words.”