Photo courtesy of Rebecca van Laer
Staff reader Megan Howell talks with contributor Rebecca van Laer about irony, the transitive properties of unconditional love, and the emergence of a “feline” story structure in her piece “Les Chats” (NER 44.1).
Megan Howell: The title, “Les Chats,” means “the cats” in French, but the only references to the French language appear in the opening when the nameless protagonist is getting to know the French cat-sitter. I interpreted its placement to mean that the piece is really a commentary on human interaction, especially considering that some of the most quotable lines all deal with communication and miscommunication. The protagonist’s cats act as a medium through which she interacts with other humans. But are they effective at this? Or do they make it harder for her to relate to people?
Rebecca van Laer: With this story, I wanted to explore how pets can become a lens that filters all of our interactions. Rather than helping or damaging her general skills at relationality, I think the cats teach her that communication is never transparent: there’s always a degree of projection, conjecture, and untranslatability. The French in the title is a way of gesturing at that.
How that plays out in the animal vs. human relationships in the story is definitely different. In the cat/human relationship, there is of course no language to translate—only guesswork. And I think you’re right that there’s irony that the narrator has boundless love and attention for beings whom she cannot directly communicate with, whereas moments of frustration and judgment with people abound. This is something that I wanted to explore: can we carry the unconditional love learned from our pets into human interaction? Or can it only inspire us to examine the boundaries and limits of our empathy (as it does in this story)?
MH: The protagonist’s anthropomorphisation of her cats combined with her indifference to certain human characters makes her come across as a much, much tamer version of a certain type of misanthropic pet-owner I’ve seen a lot of online and irl. The latter will brag about how they’d save their pet over a human child if given the chance, often ironically stating that the reason for their dislike of people is their antipathy.
Should we interpret this revenge-love for animals as a response to the stresses of being a human surrounded by other, equally messy humans? Or is the relationship between man and pet more than just a respite from other people?
RVL: I think the love for animals offers more than a respite from other people. One thing I wanted to get at in this story is the way that the narrator, her partner, and the two cats, Toby and Gus, form a family unit with its own family culture. This relates a lot to your previous question: the two humans’ relationship is enriched by the cats and is in many ways unimaginable without it.
Since the story is told in fragments, a lot hovers at the edges: there’s the COVID-19 pandemic which has forced the characters into closer relationship with their cats while keeping them distant from humans. There’s also the fact of their childlessness; while the reasons aren’t detailed and it’s open to interpretation, I tried to convey a sense of longing for more. In the penultimate section, “The Third Cat,” the narrator says, “We wish Toby and Gus could have kittens together. But we’ve learned our lesson: we can’t have everything we want. We have to preserve what we’ve got.” With this, I’m hoping to gesture to the idea that we don’t always choose the kinds of intimacies (human vs. animal) that arise in our life. Instead, we have to find value in what makes itself available.
MH: Making up the story are individually titled vignettes that all revolve around some aspect of the cats: their backstories, temperaments, quirks, etc. Instead of time driving the story, the cats do, taking us everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Why tell their story in this fashion? Why not trace their lives linearly from life until death?
RVL: I often struggle with the compression of a short story—it’s quite challenging to introduce complex characters, establish a conflict, and achieve resolution and change in under 5,000 words! In a story about a cat, that might be even more challenging: should the cat get lost? Attack its owner or another person? Fail to get along with another cat? While some of these kinds of dramatic events are referred to in the story, I’m afraid they’d fail to create sufficiently compelling stakes if explored in a linear manner, unless the story was much much more centrally about the people and their conflict.
To put the cats at the center of “Les Chats,” it felt like the story had to be more cat-like. Hopping from anecdote to anecdote felt like a more feline approach. The life of a cat is full of repetition: moving from sunny spot to sunny spot throughout the house, napping, and then occasionally getting up for a ritual cuddle or a bout of the zoomies. Yet while my cats do more-or-less the same thing every day, so much meaning emerges from it (or, I should say, I construct so much meaning on top of it). I wanted the story to function like that.
MH: The protagonist’s love for her cats feels contradictory. She values them for being purer than humans. At the same time, she projects human characteristics onto them, comparing them to TV characters and imagining their tastes in music and film. Which aspect of them does she value more: the humanlike attributes that she imagines them having? Or their foreignness as members of a different species?
RVL: I think this contradiction is the very heart of what I wanted to write about! I saw this quote on Twitter or otherwise floating on the internet: “The difference between dog people and cat people: dog people wish their dogs were people. Cat people wish they were cats.” I think that’s right. Although she can’t help but project, it’s their difference that delights her.
MH: Readers learn very little about the protagonist and her partner. The story revolves primarily around their cats until the ending: “Other times, I say that I want to follow [my cats] into the earth when they go. I know this is in poor taste. But when I think of their death, that is the level of despair I feel. I would never say this about my partner. Perhaps, most of all, it is because I fear that without them there would be no us.”
Why wait until the final line to reveal such a dramatic revelation about her partner?
RVL: This relates so much to all of your questions. Putting this any earlier in the story would demand more explanation of it; it would necessitate that the story become more and more about the people and the other reasons why the narrator may feel this way. Readers would have wanted to know much, much more about the partner, and whether he shared those feelings. The line would become not just Chekov’s gun, but a shot fired, a wound: something that had to be further examined in every aspect of the story.
Instead, in organizing it in this way, my hope is that the final line helps reveal everything in retrospect, underlining the melancholy of the story. All the love detailed here—human and animal, funny and sweet, simple and fraught—is also fragile. That does not mean that it is doomed; it just makes it more essential to savor while it exists in its current form.
Megan Howell is a fiction reader for NER and a DC-based freelance writer. After graduating from Vassar College, she earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland in College Park, winning both the Jack Salamanca Thesis Award and the Kwiatek Fellowship. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Nashville Review, and The Establishment among other publications.
Rebecca van Laer is the author of a novella, How to Adjust to the Dark (Long Day Press, 2022). She holds a PhD in English from Brown University, where she studied queer and feminist autobiography. Her work appears in Joyland, The Florida Review, Salamander, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her partner and two cats.