Books: Where feminism's a load of bull

ANIMAL HUSBANDRY by Laura Zigman Hutchinson pounds 10
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GERMAINE GREER said once that the term post-feminism is "bullshit" because the "post" suggests that feminism is dead. In the world of Animal Husbandry it never had much life in the first place. Laura Zigman's first novel turns on an all-nature, no-nurture theory of male behaviour in which "Bulls" (men) are genetically programmed to treat any "New Cow" almost immediately as an "Old Cow" to be put out to pasture in favour of a new "New Cow". The reader is tossed natural history titbits, from Darwin, The Hidden Life of Dogs, Scientific American (did you know that male banana slugs chew each other's penises off after mating?) Such "proofs" are put to some good comic use. Desmond Morris's description of animals' "dash- and-hide" tactics, for example, applied to men whose hot pursuit has gone cold, acquires a slapstick familiarity.

The book resembles a transatlantic Bridget Jones' Diary and may have the same appeal. The obsessive list-making narrator Jane Goodall is a drinking, smoking, attractive thirtysomething careerwoman who spends her evenings reading back copies of the New Yorker and eating take-out moo- shu vegetables. Then, to adopt Zigman's style: [ENTER Bull] Ray, who is tall, dark and handsome with a washboard stomach to die for [MATING SCENE DELETED].

Mannerisms like this screenplay use of capitals within square brackets distract from the main strengths of the book. Zigman is good on basic human needs and failings. She conjures the headiness of a new relationship and the pain of being dumped when no reason is given. "It's like random violence. All you want to know is what the victim did to bring on the attack so you can prevent it next time."

The apparent arbitrariness of Ray's decision to "end it between them" pushes Jane to move in with womaniser Eddie and devote her evenings to her quasi-scientific investigation. Whether the intention behind it is partly serious or wholly ironic, the New Cow-Old Cow theory falls down because it's neither as insightful nor as funny as it's meant to be. But once the central relationship is over, the narrator's on-going research does keep us deep in Zigman's New York, a place evoked so specifically that we come away knowing the cost of a chicken and lima bean dinner.

In this chic, bohemian vision of the Big Apple, roommates flit between star-spotting at Elaine's, exchanging personal recovery programmes in sunken living rooms, and slumming it in after-hours dives where glasses of Jack Daniels are already sliding along the bar before they've been ordered. Zigman's characterisation is hearty. The narrator's best friends, Joan and David, are good foils with nice lines in pithy phrases ("Time wounds all heels"). With the exception of Mia, Ray's soon to be ex-Current Cow and a vegan Rape Crisis Counsellor, the villains are sympathetically presented. Of Eddie, prize Bull, prime research subject, the narrator explains: "I saw the dark tunnel of Eddie's loneliness [and] knew that the women who came and went from his life only passed by it without entering."

Animal Husbandry will hit nerves with its blithely non-feminist world view. It will engage those who'd like to laugh at incurable romantics but have themselves suffered the symptoms.

Comments