The problem with becoming a renowned provocateur is that one must constantly deliver, and Chad Kultgen’s Strange Animals is a novel that, while being a success in a few regards, falls to the bottom of the pile when compared to the rest of the author’s oeuvre. After a career built on exploring and exposing America and its illicit relationships, obsession with sex, and other unsavory elements of everyday life, Kultgen turned his focus to religious mania, violence, and guns. The result is a narrative that effectively deconstructs the current sociopolitical/religious state of this country and allows it to lampoon itself. Unfortunately, the plot surrounding that superb deconstruction is a bit flat and very predictable.
Strange Animals contains two narratives that end up intertwined. The first one follows Karen, a PhD student in philosophy who is tired of her field not having an impact on real life and wants to write a dissertation that forces society to react in some meaningful way. When she becomes pregnant and decides to have an abortion, an idea pops into her head, and that idea ends up becoming a top international story. The second narrative follows James, a very religious young man who lives alone and whose most ardent wish is to hear the voice of God. He works as a night crewman cleaning the mall and wonders what his purpose in life is. His search gets him involved with a group of far-right Christians and eventually becomes his entire existence because God reveals His plan for him.
Religion is the main cohesive element in Strange Animals. Every minor character brings with him or her an entire paragraph devoted to their understanding of God. These spiritual/psychological insights are interesting to read, but eventually become a nuisance that interrupts the flow of the story. Kultgen is an outstanding satirist and smart observer, but the subject he picked here is almost beyond lampooning because it already is incredibly ridiculous. The outcome of this is fiction that reads like the news:
Pastor Preston held a sign with a simple design of a red X over the word Faggot. James thought vulgarity and crassness were always unnecessary, and in this specific case obscured the real message they were trying to convey in their protest.
While James serves as a vehicle to illustrate religious extremism, Karen’s agenda tries to be the antidote to that, the invitation to think rationally while also exposing the flaws of academic discourse and its tendency to have limited application outside universities. The way Karen’s life quickly turns into a media frenzy is another thing Kultgen gets right. In the age of “going viral,” the author has shown the human side of the equation. Unfortunately, the role Karen will play in the narrative becomes clear very early on, and that means that readers have to keep reading for 200 pages only to reach a conclusion that has been obvious all along.
The success of Kultgen’s previous novels was partly due to their honesty and freshness, but also to the fact that they acted as huge, unforgiving mirrors that screamed to American readers, “Here, look at yourselves!” Strange Animals attempts to do the same thing, but fails to pull it off. The pro-life movement already resembles something yanked out of a bad horror movie and gun violence is so pervasive that it almost makes you wonder if we are living in a truly civilized country. This novel shows us that, but that showing is far from being a revelation. Instead, what should be shocking behavior and utterly outré thinking is no more than an honest depiction of everyday occurrences any informed individual already knows about.
James asked Corey how much the gun cost. Corey said, “I usually let that one go for five, but you’re a Christian, and I can tell you’re not bullshitting me about that, so I’m not gonna bullshit you about this. I can let you have that weapon right now for four fifty, and that’s a special Christian discount.”
This is where my love for Kultgen’s previous work and my job as a literary critic clash. As a fan, I want to tell you that, despite its shortcomings, Strange Animals deserves to be read because it eviscerates our culture mercilessly, and literature needs more of that. However, as a reviewer, I have to tell you that your time would be better spent reading The Lie or, better yet, The Average American Male, both of which are far superior to this novel. Chad Kultgen is one of the most brutally honest and sharp chroniclers of our times, but this novel is the weakest in his catalog. Here’s hoping he bounces back with a vengeance.