Lindsay Stern’s debut novel, The Study of Animal Languages, is as entertaining as it is unnerving. As the title suggests, it examines whether or not we can translate the sounds that animals, specifically birds, make into English. But it’s also a literal study in how humans (who are really just animals, when you think about it) use language to communicate with one another.
The story centers around Ivan, a philosophy professor with a love of logic; his wife Prue, a professor who studies biolinguistics and is preparing to give a lecture on translating birdsong into English; and his father-in-law Frank, an unstable man constantly causing an accidental scene.
Stern’s novel is an academic one teeming with philosophy, paradoxes, and logic. But you don’t need to know a thing about philosophy (hi, I’ve got nothing) to enjoy it. Whether you worship Kierkegaard or the Kardashians, The Study of Animal Languages will give you a lot to think about. I found myself looking up words in the dictionary, googling philosophical terms, and making furious notes for further discussions as I read.
I spoke with Stern about communication, miscommunication, and the limitations of language. The Study of Animal Languages is a real thinker of a novel. If you’re looking for a rewarding read, I can’t recommend it enough.
HelloGiggles: I read that you got the idea for the story when a gimmick lie detector in your college professor’s office picked up the sound of a bird chirping outside.
Lindsay Stern: That was a funny moment. I’d come to talk about a paper on a class called Paradoxes. The lie detector was flashing red with the birdsong coming in through the window. That image lodged in me and helped inspire my senior thesis, which was a novella. But it kind of kept percolating.
I studied philosophy of language as an undergraduate. I’ve always been fascinated by language and the relationship between language and the world, and how that’s understood. Also, I’d been reading a lot of pop science about animal communication, and I was so intrigued by the fact that there were these studies on syntax in animal communication systems. Even displacement: Can you map the sound onto something in the environment? And yet it would, at the same time, be preposterous to suggest that you could translate the language and what that would look like.
Animals present an interesting case of another world that’s within ours, but it’s so remote. I was fascinated by that, but at the same time, the reason I found it so interesting was it seemed like a great metaphor for the impasses between us that we try to bridge with language, but that language perpetuates in various ways.
HG: How did you get to know the main characters, Ivan and Prue? Were they informed by your experiences studying philosophy?
LS: It’s funny, because I don’t have a scientific background, but I’d been reading a lot about the science, which was partly what inspired the setting and the topic. The figure of Ivan came to me because in the college I went to, the philosophy department was extremely analytic. They basically saw language as…well, I don’t want to make too categorical a statement, but I remember being in an information session for freshmen about the major. One of the professors was trying to explain what the discipline was. Someone raised his hand and said, “In our seminars, it kind of feels like we’re doing math with words.” And the professor lit up and said, “That’s exactly it!”
There’s a thrilling rigor to that. I wouldn’t give up my education in that department for the world, just in the kind of scalpel-like tools it gave me for parsing stuff. But at the same time, there’s a violence to thinking about language that way. No one can disagree that two plus two equals four. It seeks to express this great hope in the ability to have a community where we all make sense to each other, but at the same time, it has an almost tyrannical impulse.
This professor that I mentioned had gotten this major grant to use math to try to solve the problem of solipsism, which is like, How can you be sure the external world exists? I was so moved by that, and that was the germ of Ivan. Trying to think, What would someone have to feel in order to be drawn to and engaged by this hyper-clinical relation to things?
HG: Was it difficult to get inside of his head?
With Ivan, it almost like an exorcism. Like, a self-exorcism to write the novel. Clearly, I’m drawn to analytic philosophy, and I value it. But it was tyrannizing my imagination in some ways. Now that I’ve written Ivan and I’m working on a new character, the language is completely different. It’s almost as though writing him and following his breakdown helped me reach another part of myself.
HG: What about Prue?
LS: Prue was actually the hardest character to connect with. There are parts of her that I still feel like I can’t really reach. Whereas, weirdly, Frank…he showed up a little bit late in the first draft. I’d already written two chapters, and I’d originally started with a wedding scene [between Ivan and Prue], which is ironic now, because they elope. But when Frank showed up, suddenly, he brought all of this energy.
HG: Frank was my favorite. I loved him.
LS: Oh, I’m so glad! So did I. I’m not sure where he came from, but I felt like he had something about him—something about his demons and his predicament and his sincerity, and the whole idea that there are certain things about our world that seem crazy: the climate stuff, how we deal with animals. But at the same time, if you just state them and try to act on them, you have to be kind of a crazy person.
HG: Your book is full of metaphors. I particularly enjoyed that in a book about the study of animals, you shine a light on the fact that people themselves often behave like animals.
LS: Oh, I love that! The quality of a book is inversely proportional to the hubris someone has about it who wrote it. I remember in my early days, I was a big snob about MFA programs. With the first draft of [The Study of Animal Languages], I was like, This is amazing. It’s a novel of ideas. It’s making a point. By the time it really felt alive, all sense of making a claim had kind of dropped out of it. But that resonates with me as a unifying principle. It’s this person, kind of the epitome of what, in the western cannon, has been rationally incarnate: a white male philosophy professor realizing that he’s an animal.
HG: It’s funny that Ivan and Prue are supposed to be experts in communication, yet they can’t communicate with each other about anything. Do you think language has limits?
LS: I love that question. It’s just so crazy that we make these sounds and do a dance with our tongues and that we can make constitutions out of them. On one hand, I do think there’s something false about the cliché of the ineffable, and that there are limits to language and what can be said, because I think often it’s a cop-out for just using sounds in a more inventive way. But on the other hand…[Sighs.]
HG: It’s a lot to think about.
LS: This is of course not something I have an answer to, but I think a lot about why it was important to me to have a full chapter that was just [Prue’s] speech, not mediated through [Ivan’s] mind. But then, to trace how it gets received and differently interpreted and ramifies through the minds of everyone listening, and turns into this wedge in [Ivan and Prue’s] marriage, and opens up all of these questions—it’s really mysterious.
I think this is why the animal language stuff is so interesting. Historically, the view that we and no other animals have language has been rooted in the idea that we can say an infinite amount of things with language. It’s been rooted in the idea that there are no limits to language, à la Chomsky and stuff. But ironically, that kind of ratiocination—fetishizing syntax, fetishizing perspective—has opposed limits on our ability to face parts of ourselves. So in that sense, I think the view of there being no limits to language, like in Chomsky’s sense, but contra birdsong, has been extremely restrictive to us.
HG: Do you think Ivan and Prue respect each other and their respective disciplines?
LS: This is just my interpretation—which, by the way, is no more necessarily weighty than yours, possibly less so because I’m closer to it. My understanding is that [Prue] kind of wants to be a philosopher. And that’s partly why the kinds of claims she wants to make are not scientific. If you gave that speech as a scientist, it just wouldn’t make any sense. It would make sense if you were in a science studies program or a philosophy department or a theory department.
HG: This book has even more irony than I realized.
LS: Ivan studies an idea that really troubles philosophers: If knowledge is justified true belief—so, a belief that happens to be true and you have good evidence for it—then let’s say there’s a cow in a field, and you drive by and you see a flash of black and white, and you infer that there’s a cow in the field. And you’re right, but actually, what you’ve seen is someone shaking out a picnic blanket. It sounds like a totally Archean problem, and it wouldn’t bother you unless you’re really concerned with what your knowledge of the world is founded on, which Ivan is. That’s what his book is about. So of course, his predicament as the book unfolds is that he has evidence that his marriage is failing via clues that things are strained. And it’s true, it is failing. But his belief about why it’s failing is totally wrong. That, to me, was another irony of his career obsession. He’s literally living this problem, but he can’t see it.
Have you heard of Rebecca Goldstein? I haven’t actually read most of her books, but she wrote this really great nonfiction book called Plato at the Googleplex a while ago and she’s rationing how if Plato knew there was this thing called the cloud, that had all of this information, he would gradually discover, like, Oh, it’s not that interesting. We have all of this data, but that’s not tantamount to wisdom or knowledge. In the age of data, I think one of the ironies is the increasing feeling of vertigo. We know all of this “stuff,” but we don’t feel much wiser or sure of ourselves.
HG: My favorite relationship was the one between Ivan and Frank.
LS: To me, what’s compelling about Ivan is that he falls victim to the entropy which is at the core of his façade of rationality and control. We all repress things and bury things, and a challenge is to befriend that entropy instead of trying to banish it. And Frank just lives it. Somehow, it torments him, but I think he finds joy in it too in a way that kind of alienates Ivan at first, but then eventually appeals to him more and more, hence him coming to Frank at the end as kind of a father figure.
It’s funny because when you write something or produce something, your ideas of what it’s about can differ wildly from how it’s received. When I first wrote this, my working title was The Philosopher and the Madman because to me, it was Frank’s dialectic with Ivan that was the emotional core. I definitely went through many drafts thinking of it that way, and then gradually, the marriage emerged as I got closer and closer to Prue. But in many ways, it feels to me like the center of gravity if Frank’s dynamic with Ivan.
HG: As a reader, I’m often guilty of trusting that the narrator is “right” and that their perspective is assumedly correct. This book reminded me that’s not always true.
LS: That’s why I love the first person. One of my teachers at Iowa [Writers’ Workshop] put it like this: “First person narrators try to annex reality, so it’s very tempting to let them run away with the story, and to forget how the world is resisting them at every turn, as it does us and our assumptions all the time.” With a first-person narrator, you get to live in that space between what they can see and what the reader can see. And you can’t feed too much information to the readers, because then the voice dies. But also, you have to just let in little glimmerings of the myopia of the character. It’s an ongoing attempt.
HG: What do you want people to take away from the story?
LS: It’s really a gift to talk to you about it because you engaged with it so thoughtfully. I hope that people would feel, as I felt coming to the end of a draft writing it, freer to see old questions in new ways.
HG: What’s your favorite book that you’ve read lately?
LS: My favorite book, the one that really fed [The Study of Animal Languages], was Elizabeth Costello by John Maxwell Coetzee. As for books that I’ve read more recently, I’m not actually done with it yet, but I’m reading this fantastic book by Taeko Kono. She’s a Japanese writer. It’s called Toddler-Hunting & Other Stories. It’s incredibly dark and psychologically brave. I would definitely recommend that.
The Study of Animal Languages is available wherever books are sold.