A friend of mine lost her roommate's cat a few years ago. Her roommate was out of town, and my friend was caring for the animal. The cat was allowed out for a bit in the evenings, behind their complex. One night, my friend forgot to let him back in. In the morning, he didn't respond to her calls, so she called me. I suggested she look carefully in the backyard and the surrounding yards.
I knew this cat only slightly, but he struck me as the sort of older, sedate tom unlikely to stray far from his food supply. She looked; no cat. She printed up fliers, and we made our way around Hyde Park stapling them to things. I convinced her we should check the backyard again. She liked the cat and all, but she wasn't a "cat person," as people refer to my tribe, as if we were slightly deranged extras in a Val Lewton film. There was an overgrown alley alongside the apartment building, not somewhere a human would venture without a weed whacker. "Did you look in there?" I asked. She hadn't. She seemed to think that if the cat wasn't in plain sight, it wasn't in the backyard. I waded into the jungle, thistles hitching to my clothes. As if on cue, a plaintive yowl came from my right. And there was the big white tom — less white at the moment, dirty and miserable — crouched in a little den of brambles. I hauled him out and put him in my friend's more familiar arms. Within an hour, after eating and drinking his fill, he was his old self, lounging in a patch of sun on the living room floor.
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The triumph I felt then (I am the cat whisperer! I understand how cats think!) was subsumed by relief. I didn't know the cat well — I can't even remember his name — but I can't bear to think of a cat's suffering in pain or fear. So when I got Peter Trachtenberg's new memoir, "Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons," which is in part about his search for his missing cat, the first thing I turned to was the ending to find out if Biscuit made it home safely. I didn't think I could read a book that ended in feline tragedy. Spoiler alert: I read the book.
Of course, no one understands how cats think. "I'm always conscious that my judgments about what a cat is thinking or feeling aren't really judgments but projections," writes Trachtenberg, who is also the author of "7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh" (1997) and "The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and Its Meaning" (2008). He demonstrates, with self-deprecating grace, how naturally that insight extrapolates to a related one: We don't understand what other people think, or why they behave as they do, even — especially — the people we love. Trachtenberg's search for Biscuit is interlaced with his search for his failing marriage to author Mary Gaitskill, referred to as "F.," as though she were a Kafkaesque cipher:
By then, F. had decided she wanted to separate. It may be because she'd met somebody else. It may be because I'd run out of money and could barely pay my share of the bills. .... It may be because I'd yelled at her about leaving dirty dishes on the kitchen counter.
She's leaving him because of something momentous. Or something trivial. At any rate, because of something. "Maybe I didn't love my cat, or didn't love her as much as I thought," Trachtenberg writes. "I mean, it's hard enough to know when you love a person."
Throughout "Another Insane Devotion," Trachtenberg juxtaposes the narratives of his twin loves, but, somehow, the analogy rarely seems contrived. He spells out the connections between his love for his cat and for his wife, his inability finally to understand why either of them left, but the book is just as much an exploration of the crucial difference between the two relationships:
To me, why my cat wandered off and where she went are, if not incomprehensible, unknowable. Still, I can recount just about every step of my search for her and many of the key incidents of our relationship before then. This is more than I can do for my relationship with F., which at the time Biscuit disappeared was beginning to change and, maybe, to draw to an end.
Understand our relationship with another being? We can't even understand ourselves. Trachtenberg's read Freud. He knows that memory, as Ben Yagoda puts it in "Memoir: A History," "is itself a creative writer." He begins the book by acknowledging that although it is a work of nonfiction, its facts "vary in their density," some corroborated by documentation, others by that creative writer alone. The real F. disputes some details. This has led at least one reviewer to dismiss the book as "unreliable," a judgment which simply ignores the complex history of autobiography as a literary genre, from Augustine to John D'Agata. Rousseau begins "The Confessions" with a sly admission that "defect of memory" may have led to slight embellishment here and there. But even if memory were Memorex, there are other reasons "we are unknown to ourselves, we knowers," as Nietzsche wrote. "What can you know about an object that's always changing?" Trachtenberg asks.
I suspect the popularity of literary memoir represents both a failure of imagination and a triumph of narcissism. You're not Augustine or Henry Adams, I think as I stand before the junk displays in Barnes and Noble; what makes you think anyone wants to read about your sex life? "Another Insane Devotion" is more than a literary memoir. Trachtenberg's a bit too fond of playing the philosophe ("a lover experiences the world as a series of isolated moments bright with feeling"), but his crisscrossing passions are too busy and engaging to succumb to the genre's tendency to drearily impart life lessons. "The nature of love" is an excuse for him to riff across centuries, from cat burial in ancient Cyprus to the lyrics of Sappho to marriage in the Torah to John Ruskin's unhappy wedding night to the novels of James Salter. And this is surely the best book written about what it means to love cats, and to wonder if they love you, since Carl Van Vechten's "The Tiger in the House."
I should mention that Trachtenberg can write. He and F. have a Christmas Eve ritual of trying to find "A Christmas Carol" on TV, "the old one with Alistair Sim as Scrooge." They never can; only newer versions "shot in color that browbeat the eye":
We groused about a world that wouldn't let you see Dickens's characters in the somber black-and-white of Victorian mourning, on degraded footage whose tiny, writhing imperfections might be homunculi of the ghosts Marley shows Scrooge outside his window. We wanted to see the Scrooge of our childhood, and they wouldn't give it to us, and it was cruddy.
It was cruddy. It often is. "You'd think we could find peace in a place this beautiful, but we cannot," Trachtenberg says toward the end of the book. "Both of us are waiting for something to happen." Maybe your cat comes back. Maybe your lover does, too. Maybe not. Maybe someone else comes along. It has to do with love. You wait for something to happen.
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."
"Another Insane Devotion"
By Peter Trachtenberg, Da Capo, 304 pages, $24