Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like environmentally conscious literature has gotten a lot more imaginative in the last couple of years. 2011 gave us A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarok—a seamless interweaving of Norse mythology with 20th-century death and destruction—and now we have Invisible Beasts, a debut novel by poet and literary critic Sharona Muir. But while Ragnarok and Invisible Beasts share much in the way of purpose, they could hardly differ more in tone and approach. Ragnarok has a grimness and grandeur befitting its literally mythic scope; it overwhelms the reader in all the best ways. By contrast, Invisible Beasts plays primarily on its readers’ heartstrings; for all its forays into the realms of philosophy and evolutionary time, it’s a personal—even sweet—read. Which approach you prefer will likely be a matter of personal preference; both novels are smart, unique, and highly literary works. To be sure, the cozy warmth of Invisible Beasts can veer towards the precious at times, but by and large, the novel succeeds in its attempts to wed earnest appeal to rich, multilayered thought.
In keeping with Invisible Beasts’ author’s bio, I’ve persisted in calling the book a novel, but there’s little to be found in the way of plot. It is, in essence, a series of vignettes tied together by a common narrator, an amateur naturalist named Sophie. Sophie, like several other members of her family, has a rather unusual ability: she can see an entire world of fantastical creatures that are invisible to most humans. Unfortunately, these species are no less vulnerable than their visible counterparts to the pressures of habitat disruption and destruction, and some are in danger of extinction. It is in an effort to raise awareness of the plight of these species that Sophie is now speaking out about her gift. In chapters that combine elements of the field guide, short story, philosophical tract, and personal essay, Sophie paints a moving portrait of each species: its appearance, its behavior, its ecological niche, and—most provocatively—its relationship to the humans who are unaware of its existence.
It’s not every day that I come across a book as thoughtfully constructed as Invisible Beasts. Indeed, “constructed” is the appropriate word, because the novel has all the elegant precision of a feat of architecture—or a wonder of nature. The chapters are laid out according to the Fibonacci sequence (“[a pattern] nature seems to carry in her overall pockets and keep handy for routine work”): eight for common species, five for those endangered or extinct, three for those that are rare, two for “invisible beasts in print,” one for a “cyclically invisible” lightning bug, and one for Sophie’s concluding thoughts. But the meticulousness of the novel’s design does not stop at mathematics; there is a steady progression of ideas as well. Though the whimsy of the novel’s early chapters never really disappears, the chapters become markedly weightier as we move through Sophie’s “shrinking circles”; truth-detecting bats and temperamental donkeys (“To this day, we [Americans] lead the world in the enormous size of our asses”) give way to musings on the nature of consciousness and love.
The common thread in all of this is the common thread that ties humanity to the animal world. Muir riffs cleverly on the concept of invisibility, showing us the double-edged sword of human inattention; some species, Sophie surmises, have been able to thrive only because they have escaped our notice, but that very blindness could prove deadly when we have proven all too willing to ignore even animals dying before our eyes. Muir’s most trenchant observation, however, comes in the prologue:
Human beings are the most invisible beasts, because we do not see ourselves as beasts. If we did, we would think and act differently…Do you think you’re a beast? Not really. Not you. I, however, seeing animals where no one else does, am that much more aware of our human blindness—a blind spot in our collective mind, roughly the size of the planet, that’s turned on every creature including ourselves.
At the most basic level, it is this inteconnectivity—by turns poignant, hilarious, and even mystical—that Muir explores in Invisible Beasts. The story of the “Foster Fowl”—a soft, gentle, slightly comical bird given to hatching and raising other species’ young—reads almost like a parable; what sort of world, Sophie seems to ask, would tacitly condemn to death these “mother[s] whose all-enfolding love does not discriminate between [their] kind and others”? Meanwhile, the delicate, luminous “Air Liners” that surround humans in the midst of sexual congress blur the lines between biology and spirituality, all while furnishing ample grounds for Sophie’s meditations on love:
Even if people besides me could see these invisible followers…I doubt we’d learn much about what we are from Air Liners. They illumine what we were a moment ago. They show the river we have stepped out of. At the core of their airy, translucent sphere is the solid, dark point of our presence—a point always in the present moment, from which we are thrown toward and into each other, in irresistible collisions. Love is always happening for the first time.
And then there is the “Golden Egg”—an unassuming life-form in all but looks and longevity that, by simple virtue of its long lifespan, has the power to reveal to us the “big picture”: the rise and fall of species across hundreds of millions of years, and the part humans have played in the most recent mass extinction.
As these brief synopses demonstrate, the ties that bind us to our fellow invisible beasts are never simple or straightforward; they are, in fact, as unexpected as Muir’s endlessly inventive prose, ranging from the concretely symbiotic to the purely metaphoric. And this is, in a way, Muir’s point. It would be unbelievably callous to consign these species to extinction through inattention, but it would also be deeply self-destructive—and not only because we cannot possibly hope to anticipate all of the ways in which our continued existence hinges on a thriving, diverse environment. Rather, Muir suggests that the things we value as most human are, in fact, “bestial”: “Instead of believing ourselves to be above animals, or separate from them, we [should] understand how every aspect of our lives—spiritual, psychological, social, political—is, also, an aspect of our being animals.” In her epilogue, Sophie explicitly ties love, in all its mystery, to the vastness of nature:
The yearning of longtime lovers reaches beyond the wholeness of the human egg, our beginnings, to the wholeness of all life’s beginnings…Even when you want no more from your mate than a breakfast kiss, a pat on the shoulder, something yanks on you from an unsounded depth and demands the world! From every loving touch and kiss that lasts long enough also spreads, in a widening circle, a yearning to be made whole with all of life.
Could literature, and the arts generally, point towards something similar? If Muir’s book, with its blend of earthy joy and airy abstraction, is any indication, the answer is yes.