“Why funny animals?” The inevitable question. It’s the kind of question asked by people with no imagination. Or people who believe that imagination is best put to use creating the kind of fiction to which it appears no imagination was applied at all.
If you’re interested in the answer to that question — my imaginary askers wouldn’t care one way or the other, their point already having been made — it’s neatly contained within the pages of Daniel Polansky‘s The Builders. This novella doesn’t have the satirical bite of Meet The Feebles or [insert your favourite piss-take of anthropomorphic cuddliness here]. Polansky’s gunfighters are whiskered, not grizzled, but it’s not a switch designed to make any particularly poignant or ironic point. In the afterword, he acknowledges the story’s genesis as a joke, but judging by the finished product, Polansky must have realised the potential for something greater along the way.
Plenty of stories like this exist just because of cuteness, or because of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thrill of putting animals in people clothes and let them do SERIOUS HUMAN STUFF. I know for a fact that my strawmen from the first paragraph would need no more reason to dismiss these kinds of stories out of hand. Weird, that; how a expression’s mere potential for the facile and inane is enough to render it utterly worthless (in strawmen eyes).
As I was saying, though, you don’t need to look any further than The Builders to find a sterling example of why we have used animal avatars in our storytelling since the days of cave paintings: It’s a shortcut to character. Seeing ourselves in animals is, strangely, one of the most human things there is, and Polansky plays on this — along with our knowledge of western and heist tropes — quite shamelessly. What’s so remarkable about The Builders, though, is that its characters never feel like stereotypes. They’re as distinctive and instantly engaging as if they had been essayed by expert animators, or an exquisitely cast ensemble of actors. More so, in fact, than the vast majority of other stories in the Seven Samurai/The Wild Bunch/Ocean’s Eleven mold.
The characters aren’t the only remarkable thing here, either; his prose and structure both have a giddy, I-can’t-believe-I’m-getting-away-with-this-sh*t energy to them. In fact, I’m tempted to say that Polansky at times exhibits the same kind of formal artfulness that elevates Quentin Tarantino’s films from genre potboilers to art. The thrill provoked by chronology scrambles and playful chapter transitions reminded me of seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time. And all of it, somehow, made sharper and fresher by those funny animals.