Peter Trachtenberg isn’t exactly drawn to warm and fuzzy topics. His books include The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning (Little, Brown, 2008), which earned a starred review in PW and explored anguish, and 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh (Crown, 1997), which drew a psychological map by connecting the dots of the author’s skin art. In his latest, Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons (Da Capo), Trachtenberg intertwines the story of a cat named Biscuit who goes missing and his relationship with his wife, who may also disappear.
How do you see Another Insane Devotion relating to your earlier books? Is there a thematic link?
I think my last two books revisit the old, big questions that preoccupied our ancestors. Only lately have we stopped asking them, believing them settled. The Book of Calamities asked, why do people suffer? why do they think they suffer? Another Insane Devotion explores the questions, what is love? Why does one love a particular human as opposed to other humans, and what might loving an animal, a cat, have in common with loving a member of one’s own species? How far are we prepared to go for the beings we love, human or animal? What sacrifices are we prepared to make? When we decide we love another being, what obligations are we taking on, whether we know it or not?
You could say there’s something ridiculous about asking those questions in relation to a cat, but in a way the absurdity is the point. Nobody asks those questions about humans any more, not after Freud and Oprah and the discovery of serotonin. We think we know. And the fact is we know nothing, and everybody who loves anyone or anything succumbs to a mystery in whose presence he remains stupid and baffled.
I’d add that The Book of Calamities was an intensely painful book to write, for reasons that seem pretty obvious. It took me far longer to write than I’d originally supposed it would. It used up all my resources. It broke me, and it left me broke. In contrast to that, writing Another Insane Devotion was pure pleasure. It was Puccini and gelato and the Rolling Stones. Its challenge was the challenge of doing justice to beings I had loved, of doing justice to what I felt for them. Sometimes I told myself that all I had to do was write about a cat half as well as some other writers have written about dogs.
Do you think there is something about cats (as opposed to dogs and other animals) that makes them particularly apt vehicles for metaphor?
The thing about cats is that they’re veiled. Or, rather, they seem veiled, to a degree that dogs don’t. Dogs look at you with eyes brimming with meaning, and the wonderful thing about that meaning is you don’t have to interpret it; it’s obvious. They bark. They put a paw on your knee. They bring you the Frisbee they want you to throw to them. I imagine that’s because dogs and humans spent thousands of years hunting together, and that required a certain transparency of communication. Cats hunt on their own. And although our cats are constantly communicating with us, they do so on their own terms and often without making a sound; their messages have to be interpreted.
Most people who’ve spent time with cats have noticed that they blink, but not everybody understands that the blinking is a message. They’re telling you they have no hostile intentions toward you, they’re not planning to attack you. Check it out sometime. Blink slowly at a cat two or three times, it will slowly blink back. Compare that to a dog jumping up on you and licking your face. You write a metaphor on a blank sheet of paper, or on paper that you at least think is blank. Not on paper that has WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF! scrawled on it from top to bottom.
What’s the most important thing you’ve ever learned from a cat?
Cats taught me to pay attention. To even begin to understand them—to even entertain the fantasy that I understood them—meant that I had to spend a lot of time watching them. The way they walked across a room. The place one chose to sit. Whether their ears were tilted forward or back. Of course I understand that all the conclusions I was drawing about them may have been wrong. What mattered was that I was paying attention, a concentrated, mostly silent attention that I had never given another human being, and that, over time, I came to believe was the prerequisite of any kind of love. It was Proust who wrote that love begins with looking. My cats taught me to look.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing what began as a work of nonfiction about the business failures of Ulysses S. Grant. Before he became the supreme commander of the Union armies, he failed at almost everything he undertook, running businesses into the ground, getting fleeced by his partners. And at the end of his life, after winning the Civil War and serving two terms as president, he was driven to the brink of bankruptcy by his crooked business partner, Ferdinand Ward, “the young Napoleon of Wall Street.” It was this reversal that drove him to write what may be the definitive American memoir. He finished the book a day before he died. The first royalty check—paid to Grant’s widow by the publisher, Mark Twain—was equivalent to $4.8 million in today’s money. My intention was to make Grant’s story a lens into American attitudes toward wealth and failure. I wanted to write about the 19th century while making it clear that I was also writing about the 21st.
This summer, during a residency at the Bellagio Center, I shared a portion of the book with some other residents—(the Chilean novelist Carlos Franz, the Bolivian Juan Lechin, Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, and the French filmmaker Anne Aghion—and they persuaded me to try writing the story as fiction, and that seems to be how it wants to be told. Grant was a little guy who rose as high as it’s possible for a little guy to rise, but at the end of his life he remained a little guy, dependent on the kindness and largesse of richer men. This book may be my way of asking why America is so tough on little guys.