by Alisa Slaughter
Gold Line Press (2013)
Review by Samantha Futhey
If you are looking for a testament to the visceral connections between animals and humans, look no further than Alisa Slaughter’s stunning fiction chapbook, Bad Habitats, winner of the 2012 Gold Line Press Competition in Fiction. Alisa Slaughter blurs the boundaries between animals and humans, offering us a reflection of human action through animal eyes. Heron, the wineaux shop attendant, mourns the lack of taste in the fish he eats. Cougar, a renegade from the mountains, rides a bus and contemplates snacking on children whose suburban world invaded his previous unblemished territory. Centered in urban and rural environments of California and Mexico, Alisa Slaughter engages the reader with relentless urgency on issues of global climate change and environmental degradation. These stories reveal human violence against nature in intoxicatingly beautiful prose aimed to stun.
The chapbook begins with the title story, “Bad Habitats,” a collection of vignettes revolving around the character Raccoon. Within in the first few lines of “Bad Habitats,” the prose sets up a balance between the grotesque elements of human society and the animal world: “When the conventions come to town there’s chicken sometimes, sandwich shards among the square planters and the white-trunked ficus, reflecting pools that reflect and colored jets that fling chlorine drops of amethyst and amber. Maybe it’s the disinfectants or whatever they’re feeding the chicken, but we can’t think in a straight line.” The reader, particularly in this story, also cannot think in a straight line, as the boundaries between what is human and what is animal disintegrate. The character Raccoon is part human, part beast, though which parts the reader is not sure and Slaughter leaves only a few clues. Although this may frustrate some readers, Slaughter’s intricate prose leaves a haunting and mystical sensation, transcending any frustrations for those who like their plots cut and dry.
In the rest of the chapbook collection, the disjointing connections between animal and human continue in stories such as “Cougar Comes of Age,” “Coyote in Winter,” “Raven Foreclosed,” “Big Cranky,” and the finally “Duck Get’s It Done.” This last story of the collection, the combination of human attributes and clearly animal behaviors collide absurdly when Duck encounters a lost Arctic Tern: “Duck didn’t know what happened, but he just lost it, swam in circles, shouting ‘ӧmurlegur fugl, zachvatchik, bad night, huh, you black-capped Eurotrash, you should have stayed away from the vodka.'”
Besides the comical effect of mixing human and animal, throughout the chapbook the animal characters reveal human desires for love and affection, but these characters are scarred, often physically, from the world they live in. In “Cougar Comes of Age,” Cougar is confronted with a lone man reading a newspaper article about him, and contemplates his mother’s advice revealing that Cougar, not the man, is the “unloved wanderer.” Coyote lost a tail, a leg, and her unrequited love. Raven becomes mateless after years of wondering if her life is worthwhile. The characters reflect on their conditions, as the landscape of deserts and urban sprawl mirror their emotions.
Alisa Slaughter provokes readers to dismantle their associations with common animals and how human society shapes the environment. The opening story “Bad Habitats” acts as a manifesto for the whole collection, forcing the reader to stare at the absurdity, beauty, and devastation of modern society. Although parts of Bad Habitats may seem heavy-handed in their critique of human society, this does not detract from the stories. With her fierce prose and balanced characters who embody sincerity and human folly, Alisa Slaughter’s fiction chapbook Bad Habitats is a beautiful addition to an environmentally conscious library.