Joni Murphy’s Talking Animals
An Orwellian satire about the revolution that’s already here
Joni Murphy’s novel Talking Animals is a modern-day political satire that cuts almost too close to the bone, with echoes of Orwell’s Animal Farm that reverberate throughout the subways and endless numbered streets of her not-so-fictional New York City. Because if we needed an update to that classic critique of totalitarianism, of course it would be set in the very home of American corruption and excess, where the wealth gap is the most violently tangible and the land literally caves under the weight of all that it is asked to support.
Murphy spends little time on world-building or asking the audience to play along here, besides an introductory chapter that lays out the story of New York on a historic time scale. “There is no story of a city that is not also a story of brutality,” the narrator says. “There is no story of brutality that has not been retold as one of heroism.” Murphy and her characters are here to dig up some of the brutality hidden under the story of heroism. Her characters just so happen to be, yes, talking animals.
In this New York, animals live and work and die; they tend bar or work in tech, they look for affordable apartments, they find love or they don’t. Alfonzo Velloso Faca, an alpaca with a mind-numbing job sorting files in the damp basement of City Hall and a dissertation that he keeps meaning to finish, is our pitiable protagonist. He’s still in love with his ex-girlfriend, and his relationship with his overbearing father has been strained ever since his mother died. Alfonzo is a revolutionary in his ideals, but time and grief have made him soft—he still has enough fire in him to say something antagonistic at a birthday party to ruin everyone’s night, but when he is pressured to commit to actual change, he lapses into passive self pity instead. He needs constant interventions from his best friend Mitchell, a llama who works a floor above him at the Housing Authority office, to keep from spiralling into complete despair.
This story is about Alfonzo, his aspirations and his failures—but the real story, the story of a drastically changing city and world, is playing out in the background behind Alfonzo’s self-centered desires. While Alfonzo dreams of one day becoming a professor and leading herds of undergrads to the fertile intellectual grounds of class consciousness, Mitchell and Pamella, the lemur barista who’s been slipping him revolutionary literature for months, are quietly percolating the real revolution—along with dozens of other radicals across New York.
You must forsake the ego to produce actual change; you must be willing to play your small, unglamorous role to be a part of something greater. A part of the humor—and the frustration—of this novel is watching Alfonzo continually miss this lesson, or almost reach it but fall just short, over and over. This ineffectiveness is also what makes him immensely relatable—and not really in a feel-good way.
This coming revolution has to do with the sea. As in our own world, the ice caps are melting and the ocean is rising—this has wrought catastrophe for the creatures of the sea, who have historically been excluded from animal society and are considered “lesser creatures.” There is philosophical debate about the sentience of fish and other sea creatures, their ability to feel pain, whether they deserve the consideration of land animals at all. In particular, the ethics of aquariums is a hot topic in the world of Talking Animals.
“Some animals became entrenched in the position that aquariums were harmless, even kind institutions. These animals contended—in letters to the editor and in quasi-academic treatises—that they were motivated by the pure and altruistic desire to keep fish and other ‘lower beings’ safe. They on the land should act as caretakers for those aquatic animals who were capable only of drifting through existence. … According to the government, the sea could not be recognized as a state actor because its denizens never responded to the various invitations to debates, treaty proposals, and conferences the land creatures had extended to them. They wouldn’t engage meaningfully in a political process.”
The position of sea creatures as the underclass in this world is such an abundant allegory, despite (or maybe because of) its simplicity. The creatures of the sea don’t speak the same language as those of the land—literally and figuratively—and this is seen as evidence of their intellectual deficit or lack of sentience. Since they can’t communicate in the ways we land animals can understand, do they have intelligence at all? If they don’t cry out in a way we can hear when they’re attacked, do they even feel pain? And do these questions say more about them, or about us?
The revolutionaries call themselves the Sea Equality Revolutionary Front (SERF). Written off as terrorists by the right wing and the city’s corrupt mayor, SERF believers are, in fact, everywhere; organizing and plotting with sea creatures. Alfonzo’s favorite noise musician, Akida Kombu, is a SERF radical, whose droning, deafening sounds are meant to mimic the way antisubmarine sonar and ultrasonic detection used in offshore oil drilling move through the water. His ex-girlfriend, Vivi, has taken up with a group of SERF activists in a small beach town on Long Island. The sea and its creatures have been trying to talk to Alfonzo for quite a while; he must decide for himself whether he’ll listen or not.
Of course, whether or not he listens, water and its subtle but unstoppable power of erosion is coming for Alfonzo and his city. There’s frequent mention of a recent hurricane that flooded the city and destroyed homes and left millions without power, and fear of what new devastation the sea might bring. There’s also the constant flooding in The Hole, an entire neighborhood that’s succumbed to sinkholes due to lack of infrastructure and has been all but abandoned by city services, and the Gowanus Canal—which is currently receiving the classic New York PR treatment to smoothe away concerns about its toxic levels of industrial pollution (this is true both in the book and in real life). At a turning point in the story, when Alfonzo is finally beginning to suspect that the real story isn’t about him after all, he witnesses the canal consume a floating sculpture commissioned by an allegorical Whole Foods: “No matter what the grocery store or the developers wanted, the canal had been there first. It had a stronger will. Industrial toxins would not surrender that easily. The repressed was still there, tugging at the loose edges, testing for weaknesses.”