I have to get something out of the way before we go any further: I’m a dog person. I might look at cats eating bananas or stuffing themselves into tiny boxes on the Internet, but I like the concept of cats more than the presence of them. And yet, Tom Cox’s “Close Encounters of the Furred Kind” is catnip even for a pup person like me.
First, we both enjoy bad puns, and there are plenty in the book that extend beyond the title. But more importantly, Cox has a knack for capturing the world through the lens of his pets. With three previous memoirs about his relationship with his cats under his belt, Cox has become a sort of expert in writing silly yet charming dispatches that integrate the narratives of his pets with his own (with photos throughout, of course).
Cox, a former columnist at The Guardian, understands that anthropomorphizing our pets is the No. 1 hobby of animal lovers. We compose dialogue for them, we create complicated inner lives and consciences for them, we can infer an enormity of emotion from a simple facial expression, we can speak to their taste in books and films and music. Our pets are part of our family, and therefore we are compelled to regard them and interact with them as if they were tiny humans.
“It felt as if you should be able to discuss important human matters with The Bear, because The Bear seemed so human,” writes Cox, of his oldest and most famous cat. The Bear, who is upwards of 20, is the subject of the Why My Cat Is Sad (@MySadCat) Twitter account, which has more than 312,000 followers. “My Cat is Sad because he often feels very isolated as a rare cat who favours 1940s French literature over salmon,” reads one post, paired with a photo of The Bear “reading” Camus. Or, “My cat is sad because a thoughtless, barbed remark by my other cat has left his self-esteem on the floor in shreds.” Arriving on Twitter just shortly after Grumpy Cat, The Bear is sensitive, erudite, a keen observer more than a joiner, a lover of Morrissey. He also has a My Sad Cat calendar coming out for 2017.
What’s so often missing from the narratives of the most famous social media pets — the Marus and Lil Bubs and Marnies of the world — are their caretakers’ voices. Animals have been telling their own stories since long before “Watership Down,” but on the Internet pets are often cast as free agents: adorable, independent go-getter dogs and cats working tirelessly on their brands, typing away at their laptops and sharing selfies with the world.
By contrast, Cox’s cats don’t exist on the Internet without him and his commentary on them, and “Close Encounters of the Furred Kind” belongs to Cox. He writes, “I’d lived alongside each of them for so long, their habits seemed almost an extension of my own… here was me, putting on a BBC4 nature documentary and here was The Bear, sitting six inches away from my face, staring at me in a haunting, accusatory way as I watched footage of foxes mating.”
It’s a boon to his own life story that he studies animals — his own and others — with the precision of a scientist-meets-therapist-meets-field-anthropologist (but for cats).
Despite his Internet savvy (the author has north of 850,000 fans on Facebook), Cox’s memoir is fairly low-tech, even quaint in tone. His books are more about the quotidian than the extraordinary, how every single day with a pet can be a new adventure. Cox is a reporter of the mundane moments in Cat World, in which a look, a scratch, a meow, can be translated into high drama. The main thread is about Tom, his girlfriend Gemma and their four cats moving twice in a year from their home in Norfolk to a rental apartment, and finally to bucolic Devon in southwest England. Certainly not the stuff of groundbreaking or page-turning literature, but then again, any pet owner can tell you how adjusting to new spaces and establishing new territories for their animals can feel like a monumental challenge.
The entire brood acclimates to their new homes with varying levels of ease, but their distinctive core personalities remain fairly stable. In addition to sad yet wise Leonard Cohen fan The Bear, there’s sweary Shipley (“‘Eat my furry … trousers!’ said Shipley”); smug Ralph (“In keeping with his rockstar image, he was known to have the odd celebrity tantrum, swanning around the house climbing furniture and kicking vases and houseplants to the floor, all while maintaining a steady stream of self-aggrandising dialogue”); and business cat Roscoe (“Despite Roscoe’s somewhat vacant looks, she maintained the industrious air of a cat who was constantly running late for an important corporate PowerPoint presentation”). Cox details their interactions with him and each other and the outside world, including a variety of strays — friendly and less so — that make special guest appearances. His parents and their cats also make charming cameos.
Cox calls himself an outdoor cat, too, and much of the non-cat-related pages in “Close Encounters” are an appreciation of his new Devon landscape and its other animal occupants — badgers, owls — that he comes across in his travels. He even finds a poodle named Billy to walk via a website that matches potential walkers with local dogs, whom he happily introduces as “A dog I met on the Internet.”
In the midst of the chapters about his adventures with the people and animals in his life, he intersperses jokey, Internet-ready content interludes like Cat Horoscopes and Ten Short Conversations I Have Had With Cats. They provide some laughs, but they also reaffirm just how much more intimate the personal sections of the memoir feel. Cox’s prose about his furry family are what makes his memoir more endearing than a mere repackaging of his cats’ best Twitter material, even to a dog person like me.
Kreizman is the author of the book “Slaughterhouse 90210: Where Books Meet Pop Culture,” based on her popular blog.
Thomas Dunne Books: 265 pp., $24.99
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