Thursday, November 23, 2017
Books

Review: Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons

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Even for those of us who love and live with them, cats remain inscrutable. "I don't know if you can see love in a cat's eyes the way you can in a dog's," Peter Trachtenberg writes, "and of course dogs turn their amorous gaze on everybody and everything, down to the half-eaten burger somebody dropped in the grass two nights ago that they regard as if it were an old, dear friend before snapping it up."

Cats, Trachtenberg points out in his memoir Another Insane Devotion, most likely domesticated themselves, and they still behave as if they are in charge. Yet they are the most popular pet in the United States, outnumbering dogs 86.4 million to 78.2 million, according to the ASPCA.

Trachtenberg's exploration of the human relationship with cats, however, is personal. The book revolves around the disappearance of one of his cats, a golden former stray, named Biscuit. A book about a missing cat might seem like a slim premise, not to mention a warning sign of treacly sentimentality. But Trachtenberg, a journalist, memoirist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine and who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, is up to something unexpected.

He writes eloquently, insightfully and often humorously about his relationships with not only the gregarious Biscuit but with other cats, like Bitey, a black cat with an imperious underbite that made her look "like Richard III," and Gattino, an insouciant one-eyed kitten rescued from a barn in Italy and ferried, at considerable expense, back to the United States.

Musing over the history of the cat, he notes that in the Middle Ages cats were often tortured and burned for entertainment — a practice that might have contributed to the millions of human deaths during the Black Plague when a shortage of cats led to a population explosion of rats, whose fleas carried the plague.

But what Trachtenberg is really interested in is found in his book's subtitle: On the Love of Cats and Persons. Biscuit's disappearance takes place as his marriage is fracturing, and as he delves into his love and longing for the missing cat, he's reflecting on the even more complex relationship with his wife.

They are separated when Biscuit disappears from their rural New York state home; he is teaching in North Carolina, she's working in Italy, and a boneheaded house sitter waits several days to mention the cat is missing. He spends money he doesn't have to go home to look for Biscuit, but as he writes about that experience, he also tells the story of his relationship with the woman he calls F.

Will Trachtenberg find Biscuit? Will he and F. reconcile? Trachtenberg makes both questions meaningful, enriching them with things such as a Gnostic Bible story about how both the dog and the cat lived in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve were ejected, the dog chose to go with them. The cat liked the garden more than he did the people.

"This is why dogs stay close to people and travel at their side, following the example of their first ancestor. And this is why cats stay in the house, or nearby, in emulation of the one cat who dwells in Paradise, waiting for the people to return. On that day, he will greet the man and the woman at the gate and braid himself around their ankles, gazing up at them and purring. In the meantime, he keeps the mice down."

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