Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals is the novel I needed as 2016 ebbed and we began waiting, scarcely daring to breathe, for the Trump presidency to begin. Lives are hanging in the balance as a Republican-dominated Congress works by night to strip the protections of the Affordable Care Act, the president-elect meets with vaccine skeptics, and his Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, dodges questions on climate change and his company’s role in sowing misinformation about climate science during his confirmation hearing. It doesn’t take a visionary to see where all this is going: more sickness, more death, a poisoned planet. What’s harder is to imagine any form of redemption, and that’s why I needed Night of the Animals.
Broun’s vision of 2052 London is in some respects familiar dystopian terrain. It’s a world in which our current inequalities have sedimented into a division between a restored aristocracy, led by tyrannical king “Harry9,” and powerless Indigents, constantly looking over their shoulder to avoid the attentions of the brutal Red Watch police force. Democracy is essentially dead; the Positive Disenfranchisement Act of 2028 has rolled back over a century’s worth of social reforms, while the free press has been replaced by WikiNous, an “implanted, all-purpose comm-network that grew within human tissue,” allowing people to read “Harry9’s official views and a boorish brand of light ‘newertainement’” on their own skin (“SkinWerks”) as advertisements and alerts pop up, unwanted, on their corneas. Wild animals are almost entirely extinct, and the London Zoo is the last zoo left standing in the world, a modern ark for the last lions, gorilla, and leopard on earth. In some ways, Broun’s story world is a mash-up of Margaret Atwood and Black Mirror, a nightmare of environmental degradation, political despotism, and questionably spelled technological products functioning as a new opiate for the masses.
At the center of Night of the Animals is Cuthbert Handley, a poor, elderly, mentally ill drug addict who is also the last inheritor of the Wonderments, a mystical gift inherited from his Black Country ancestors that allows him to speak to animals. Or maybe it’s just the Flot talking, the hallucinogenic drink that Cuthbert is hooked on. It’s not really clear, and it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Cuthbert hears the animals of the London Zoo pleading with him to set them free. And, over the long night of the novel’s title, he does just that.
There’s a further wrinkle in the story: Heaven’s Gate suicide cults have become enormously popular, and they make a practice of staging mass suicides in which each member kills a dozen animals before offing himself or herself. They believe that their souls will travel to a higher plane, “the Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human.” Cuthbert has a feeling that the cultists are coming for the zoo animals, an intuition which seems to prove true (though, again, it’s not really clear). Cuthbert’s quest to free the animals, then, is a battle of life against death, of vibrant animal existence against those who would sacrifice it in the name of the abstract soul.
Cuthbert’s resistance to the suicide cults is one of the reasons this novel feels like the right one right now to me. The election of a climate denier who plans to pull out of the Paris Accords, the appointment of an oil man who would like to plunder the melting Arctic for more oil as our Secretary of State and an EPA head who would like to destroy the agency from the inside, the further empowerment of a Speaker of the House who is finally getting to fulfill his dream of repealing the ACA and stripping people of health insurance… I don’t think it’s overdramatic to say that this spells acceleration toward death, for other species, for ourselves, and for the unborn generation of human beings whose futures we’ve sold off. Trumpism is a suicide cult.
Bleak, I know. But Night of the Animals is also a story about redemption. Over the long night, Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert, the long-prophesied liberator of the animals; meanwhile Astrid Sullivan, a police officer going through the life-threatening Flot withdrawal period, becomes the Christ of Otters, protecting the animals and the asylum seekers at the American embassy in London from the Heaven’s Gaters. That these transformations are temporary and impossible to disentangle from the visions induced by Flot and Flot withdrawal hardly matters. Haven’t religious visions always been suspect that way? What matters is that Astrid and Cuthbert choose life: free, joyful, painful, vulnerable animal life, for others and for themselves.
Redemption in Night of the Animals happens through an ad hoc coalition of the abject. It’s the animals, the addicts, the indigents, the migrants, the sick, coming together on a single night to do no less than save England. That, too, feels like a message we need to hear right now. Salvation won’t come from a man living in a gold tower who promises that he alone can fix it. Maybe our best hope is to look to the margins as Broun has done, to reorient our moral philosophies around the most vulnerable: the old, the sick, the homeless, and the animals.