The New Yorker's short story this week, "Pending Vegan" by Jonathan Lethem, seemed to plumb a lot of simmering issues straight from The Dodo; a burgeoning concern over animal welfare, ethical eating, animals in captivity and, naturally, SeaWorld.
In the story, Paul Espeseth privately renames himself "Pending Vegan" as he grapples with a sudden concern about animals. He grudgingly agrees to take his twin daughters on a trip to San Diego's SeaWorld, possibly made even more surreal by Espeseth's withdrawal from the anti-anxiety drug Celexa. It's a crackling snapshot of one man's crisis, and a culture at a moral crossroads. (And, ironically, was published just before news broke that SeaWorld used anti-anxiety drugs on its orcas.)
Lethem, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle (for "Motherless Brooklyn") and MacArthur Genius Grant, tells The New Yorker that the story stemmed from a writing assignment he gave to a class (he teaches at Pomona College) about animals in literature. And while assigning a syllabus, "all this remained inchoate until suddenly I visited SeaWorld.
"I can't imagine anyone setting a story there who hadn't visited. (I'd also have trouble imagining a fiction writer who, after visiting the place, wouldn't start fooling around with story ideas.)" He didn't bother to fictionalize his setting. "Long ago, I'd have been certain to disguise it as ‘Fathomverse,' or ‘Poseidon's Playhouse,' or ‘Orcasm,' or something. But that wouldn't really be likely to fool anyone, would it?"
Asked the inevitable question, Lethem responded: "Cat person or dog person? Funny about that. I grew up with cats; I'm more familiar with them, more fond of them, and I identify with them more. My parents bred Siamese cats for a while, and in a lot of baby pictures I'm seen swimming in a mass of kittens."
We asked Lethem if he'd share one of those pictures, but alas, he was in Berlin and nowhere near his stash of family photos. Then we asked if he had a favorite photo or video he could share. "I belong to an elite group of animal YouTube and jpeg sharers," Lethem wrote. "We only deal in the top-grade stuff." He sent us the video below: