Review: Ramona Kennedyon Chris Flynn

What Was It Thinking?

Twelve weeks have passed since I left social media to finish my thesis. Twitter was training my brain to think in short, varied bursts, puffs and huffs of information and comment. I know it has been twelve weeks because I can identify the point in my photo reel where I last considered a shot being anything other than grist for the mill of my singular gratification. 

I left, temporarily, social media to free up neural real-estate for the thrust and signal of theory and the trill and reflection of creative practice. So that I could create, build and re-form a written argument. But there was another, less attractive reason. I have terrible boundaries. I find myself easily unbalanced, dislodged or annoyed by the opinions of others. For the moment, individuals are forbidden to post anything into my mind. Your opinions do matter to me, but I prefer them delivered in a social context. If I invite you over for dinner and ask you what you think of the monarchy, go ahead and tell me in this time that has been set aside in advance for you to tell me your opinions. Should I not care to hear them, I will change the topic. But I cannot afford to know what everyone is thinking and feeling. It is too much to be inside the heads and lives of so many interesting people without the social context that has traditionally been associated with information sharing. 

This movement back to the centre, my centre, finds some legitimacy in evolutionary theory. Now contested results of research on primate brains tells us that in our life we only have sufficient cognitive space for a stable relationship with 150 people. Like and share. 

With all this in mind – the brain reconfiguration, the resetting of personal boundaries, the freeing up of precious neural real estate – I can’t tell you how disappointing it was to read Chris Flynn’s Here Be Leviathans and be introduced to the idea that non-human entities enjoy a rich and varied internal life. 

In Flynn’s previous novel Mammoth (2020) the reader listens in as a collection of fossilised museum pieces shoot the breeze. The same gentle peculiarity is present in this new collection of short fiction. The leviathans Flynn writes of include sabre-tooth tigers and a colony of platypus. He gives voice and thought to the built spaces of a luxury cruise ship and a motel room. The experiences of living unhoused and of living with mental health challenges are presented to us with the same complex evocation of empathy, causing us to question the monster designations we have given such experiences. All this without leaving the world in which we reside, apart from one trip into space, when a monkey used during the 1950s space race takes back the narrative for animals made famous due to our exploitation of them. ‘The advantage to speaking the universal language of animals,’ explains the space monkey, ‘is that we can chat among ourselves without humans interrupting all the time to point out how clever they are.’

It has left me wondering what the two-seat, olive-green chenille sofa beneath my ‘hind might be pondering. Or the white Ikea curtains I repurposed from a decorative status in the bedroom and put to the more utilitarian task of reducing the afternoon sun in the back room. Or the bobble-headed plastic owl my partner lashed at the highest point of the slatted wooden deck screens three years ago that did zero to deter a small family of possums from raining their probiotic pellets down onto the stained boards of the back deck. What was it thinking?

Giant pandas prefer the air conditioning. I know this because one sticky day two decades ago I visited the giant panda breeding research base in Chengdu and struck up a conversation with a panda-keeper. They explained that these boofy black and white darlings prefer a facsimile of mountain cold over the humid summers in the outdoor landscaped environments of the research base. Then it was the keeper’s turn to ask me a question.

‘Why do foreigners like pandas so much? Chinese people come in here and find them interesting, like any other animal, but when you foreigners see a panda you go completely gaga.’ 

This is a loose translation.

Keen to unfurl generalised truths about people of European origin, I explain how every (every) foreign child is presented with a stuffed bear at birth or at least well before we see one in real life, and we each love our bears. We LOVE them. We talk and play imaginary games with them, and take them to bed at night as a comfort object. So when we come in here and see a giant panda deftly picking apart a stick of bamboo with their OMG opposable thumbs, the whimsy of childhood imagination that had been lost to the enlarging world of hard reality as each of us faced the same fate of young Christopher Robin is suddenly alive again. Make-believe returns to us in real encounter. Deep childhood longings and fears are resurrected and we find ourselves both enchanted by this sedate and furry megafauna and helpless against the preoperational pull to own what we see. 

This is also a loose translation.  

Reading expands the mind, and when you’ve got weak personal boundaries it can be as wild and dangerous an experience as living. But Chris Flynn takes pity on the pitiful and begins his collection with something close to the heart of anyone colonised by four centuries of European expansionism. Bears. Bears with thoughts. I regress without shame, delighted to discover what a bear-made-real might think. And in doing so I walk right into the dissonance trap laid by generations of writers. 

‘As I was charging Ash down,’ narrates Flynn’s grizzly bear, ‘I had a few thoughts about the situation. First, I’m hungry. Second, what is this kid doing so far off the official race route? He was taking a short cut, wasn’t he? What a cheater.’ 

Flynn’s bear ingests a human youth and gains more than nutrition. The bear’s thought life is transformed. Such changes challenge temporal understandings of earthly life and deny us the indulgence of a terrifying creature onto which we might project our daily angst. 

Flynn’s voicing of the other sits within a rich tradition of animal storytelling, surveyed in Delia Falconer’s review of Ceridwen Dovey’s 2015 novel Only the Animals. Flynn takes the reader further than they are expecting to be led. Quirky introductions end in evocations of sympathy and connection. It is a gentle ruse, each narrator is endowed with presence and dignity.

Decoloniality theorists Walter Mignolo and Catherine Walsh attribute the movement of European coloniality into every corner of the planet to two forces: the invention of an Enlightened, cultured Europe; and an improvement in European boat construction methods enabling the global transportation of people by sea. The powerful elites of Europe were in a position to impose their recently invented ‘praxis of living’ on a global scale, paid for by displacing Indigenous people from their lands and enslaving the peoples of Africa. It’s an ugly, ugly story, but we look the other way and see Michelangelo’s David and think, my, how we had advanced, never or rarely asking who was paying the bill. 

In this invention of Enlightenment thinking, Man sits in opposition to and apart from Nature, domesticating or proclaiming wild and exploiting in accordance with those declarations. In order to maintain European Man’s superiority to it, Nature must not talk back. Neither must the many others against which servants and beneficiaries of Enlightenment Man’s colonial practices have been taught to define ourselves. Nature must remain passive, a tool and canvas for our life. Even what is deemed ‘wild’ is caught up in European ontological encompassment. So when I am confronted by Chris Flynn’s grizzly bear thinking through life choices and future plans, that bear is now no longer who, no, what, no, who I thought it was.

In my current work I am thinking through three things: How am I colonised?, How do I colonise? And, How might I resist? These are lifelong questions. As Wiradyuri academic Kate Harriden emphasises, the colonisation of Australia is an ongoing project, which makes it never too late for non-Indigenous Australians to ask these questions of themselves. Addressing the history and continuing nature of British colonisation of these lands, says Harriden, frees Indigenous people to spend their energies on the essential task of rebuilding Culture. 

Heirs and beneficiaries of European ontology enact an inherited relationship with nature that has been out of balance, out of order, out of line (watch me speak the language of linearity like I was born to it, as I was) for centuries. With Here be Leviathans, Flynn works the gently decolonising effect of training the reader’s empathy on non-human subjects, denying a too-familiar cultural encompassment through domestication or monsterisation, defamiliarising the built spaces and inhabitants of a world we recreate to sit behind our image.

‘Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?’ asks the ancient deity in the Book of Job. ‘Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life?’ 

Placed at the end of a long story full of unthinkable tragedy and useless friends with their bad advice, the deity figure in this ancient text presents the Leviathan as synecdoche of all that cannot be controlled in life. Much of the bad advice is based on the assumption that bad things only happen to bad people, but life is not so easily parsed. As Australians move away from colonised presumptions about ourselves and our world we may well discover that such unmapped territory does not contain the monsters we fear. 

Works Cited

Dovey, C. (2015). Only the Animals. Penguin.

Falconer, D. (2014) Go Ape: Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey. Sydney Review of Books.

Flynn, C. (2020). Mammoth. University of Queensland Press.

Harriden, K. and Weir, J. (2022, May 20). What Does it Mean to be a Doctoral Researcher on Unceded Indigenous Lands? [GCREDI Guest Lecture]. Western Sydney University.

Mignolo, W. D. & Walsh, C. E. (2018). On decoloniality: Concepts, analytics, praxis. Duke University Press.