Cover image for The study of animal languages : [ a novel] / Lindsay Stern.
The study of animal languages : [ a novel] / Lindsay Stern.

Publication Information:
New York, New York : Viking, [2019]
Physical Description:
229 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Subtitle from jacket.
"Ivan is a tightly wound philosophy professor whose reverence for logic and order governs not only his academic interests, but also his closest relationships. His wife, Prue, is quite the opposite: a pioneer in the emerging field of biolinguistics, she is young and beautiful, full of life and feeling. Thus far, they have managed to weather their differences. But lately, an odd distance has settled in between them. Might it have something to do with the arrival of the college's dashing but insufferable new writer-in-residence, whose novel Prue always seems to be reading? Into this delicate moment barrels Ivan's unstable father-in-law, Frank, in town to hear Prue deliver a lecture on birdsong that is set to cement her tenure application. But the talk doesn't go as planned, unleashing a series of crises that force Ivan to finally confront the problems in his marriage, and to begin to fight - at last - for what he holds dear. A dazzlingly insightful and entertaining novel about the limitations of language, the fragility of love, and the ways we misunderstand each other and ourselves, The Study of Animal Languages marks the debut of a brilliant new voice in fiction"-- Provided by publisher.


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"An exuberant, wise, and darkly funny novel about love, talent, ambition, envy, and the bungled ways we try to connect and care for each other." --Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest

Meet Ivan and Prue: a married couple - both experts in language and communication - who nevertheless cannot seem to communicate with each other

Ivan is a tightly wound philosophy professor whose reverence for logic and order governs not only his academic interests, but also his closest relationships. His wife, Prue, is quite the opposite: a pioneer in the emerging field of biolinguistics, she is bold and vibrant, full of life and feeling. Thus far, they have managed to weather their differences. But lately, an odd distance has settled in between them. Might it have something to do with the arrival of the college's dashing but insufferable new writer-in-residence, whose novel Prue always seems to be reading?

Into this delicate moment barrels Ivan's unstable father-in-law, Frank, in town to hear Prue deliver a lecture on birdsong that is set to cement her tenure application. But the talk doesn't go as planned, unleashing a series of crises that force Ivan to finally confront the problems in his marriage, and to begin to fight - at last - for what he holds dear.

A dazzlingly insightful and entertaining novel about the limitations of language, the fragility of love, and the ways we misunderstand each other and ourselves, The Study of Animal Languages marks the debut of a brilliant new voice in fiction.

Author Notes

Lindsay Stern is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the recipient of a Watson Fellowship and an Amy Award from Poets & Writers magazine. She is currently pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at Yale University. The Study of Animal Languages is her first novel.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Stern's latest (after Luz and Town of Shadows) is a taut, brainy tale that tracks the breakdown of an academic couple's marriage while dissecting differences between language and communication, knowledge and truth, madness and inspiration. Forty-six-year-old philosophy professor Ivan Link drives his wife Prue's father, Frank, from Vermont to the Rhode Island college where Ivan and Prue teach to attend Prue's public lecture on birdsong. Bi-polar Frank is not taking his medication, but it is Prue who unsettles her audience by accusing animal language researchers of anthropocentrism, going so far as to call herself prison warden for the birds in her experiments. At the after-lecture party, Frank tries to force guests to admit animals have feelings by threatening to stab Ivan's cockatiel with a fountain pen. The next day, at the aquarium, believing he understands what sharks are communicating, Frank destroys the shark tank. Frank is hospitalized; Ivan and Prue quarrel. Epistemologist Ivan mistakenly assumes Prue is having an affair with a visiting novelist; biolinguist Prue, meanwhile, cannot articulate the depth of her discontent. Stern's intellectually teeming prose makes for a thought-provoking novel, though it's more successful asking questions such as, "Can voles experience heartbreak?" than depicting people breaking each other's hearts. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

DEBUT Things aren't going well for Ivan Link and his wife, Prue, who teach at a Rhode Island university. Ivan is an uptight philosophy professor whose obsession with logic almost rivals that of Star Trek's Mr. Spock. Young and vivacious, Prue is gaining acclaim for her research in biolinguistics, the study of the biology and evolution of language, and her career is beginning to eclipse Ivan's. To complicate matters, Prue's unstable -father, Frank, comes to visit, and he's not taking his prescribed meds. When Prue gives a lecture proposing that the birds she studies might actually have their own language, it sets off a wave of controversy, and Frank is turning into a noisy animal-rights activist who soon gets into trouble, too. Meanwhile, Ivan's worry that Prue is interested in a visiting professor triggers his own midlife crisis. Can this marriage be saved? -VERDICT Offering sympathetic characters and wry, rueful humor, debut novelist Stern proves to be an astute observer of both university politics and human behavior in an engaging debut that certainly raises thought-provoking questions while seldom becoming pedantic or ponderous. [See Prepub Alert, 8/16/18.]-Leslie -Patterson, Rehoboth, MA © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



One   All my life I've been waiting," says my father-in-law, through the stall door. We have stopped at a rest area along the in- terstate, halfway between our homes. I would meet him back in the car, if only he would stop waxing poetic. "Frank?" I face the mirror, smoothing the hair over my thin- ning spot. "I'll be--" "First for school to end," he interrupts. "Then for my twen- ties, then for success. Marriage, children, et cetera. For them to leave. For their children. Then the waiting became less conspic- uous. Waiting for the cry of boiled water. For the paper. For spring. It took a mighty long time to understand that what I'd been waiting for wasn't each thing, actually, but the chance to wait for whatever came next." The toilet sounds, mercifully. It is not Frank's, however, but the door of the adjoining stall that swings open. An elderly woman advances, angles toward the sink. She has been listening. She rinses her hands. "Sorry," I volunteer. "Men's is out of order." Through the mirror she delivers a qualified smile, snaps her wrists over the drain, and departs. When I look up Frank is shuffling toward  me, coaxing the tongue of his belt into its loop. His shirt is too broad for his shoulders, and his face appears, as it usually does, to harbor some inconvenient hope. He follows me back into  the food mart, where  I pay for a lukewarm coffee and  the  packaged  croissant he's selected. My watch reads half past five. "Looks  about time for your meds," I say.   Grimacing, he turns away, pushing open the glass door. Out­ side a shy rain has started, colder than it looks. "You know  what  it does to me,  right?"  he says, as we fold ourselves into the car. "Come on. I promised your daughter." "Promised  her what?" "That you'd be comfortable." I stab the ignition, but the car resists. "She wants you comfortable." Prue hadn't wanted  him to come at all, in fact. He's unstable, she'd said again this morning, as I downloaded  an audiobook-a biography of Noam  Chomsky  I should have read long ago-for the drive up. This  was an exaggeration,  though  Frank  has been less predictable, lately, than  in the six years I have known  him, phoning Prue at odd hours to kvetch about the government, or to solicit her "scientific opinion"  on matters completely outside her purview. She had tried to convince him to cancel the trip, but he had insisted. She would be delivering the College's annual  public lecture in the Life Sciences tomorrow, and he was determined to attend.  With  Prue  scrambling to finish  her  tenure dossier, and with  Frank  lacking  both  a car and  the  money to rent one, the task of ferrying him from his studio in Chester, Vermont, to our home in Rhode Island had fallen to me. The engine sputters  to life. I swing an arm  behind  his seat, glancing back to find  a Labrador  between our taillights, towing a woman  in heels. I slam the brakes. She flips me off and stag­ gers after the dog, tenting a newspaper over her hair. "It evicts me," Frank  says, "from  my goddamn skin. Turns me into a sleeping and eating machine,  is what it does." The  Clozaril, he means. Prescribed for schizophrenia and, in rare cases-among them, Frank's-bipolar disorder. "Like there's a twelve-foot margin between me and the world, is what it's like," he adds. "Between me and my own head." "You seem present enough  to me," I say. He has complained about  the side effects of Clozaril  before-the night sweats, the vertigo-but never this obliquely. "Nothing like when  I'm off them,"  he says. "When I'm off them, I'm myself. Only trouble is the gaps." We coast onto the highway. To our left a Christmas tree shudders by, lashed to a van. "Gaps in normality, and whatnot." He pins the plastic sleeve of the croissant between his knees. "In my ability ... " The sleeve pops open, releasing a stale, buttery odor. I breathe through  my mouth, feeling the swill of irritation  and fatigue he so often compels in me. "My ability to summon the cast of mind required  to shop and chat and pay bills," he concludes.   You can flush the pills, as for as I'm concerned, I do not say. While  I haven't confessed as much to Prue,  I have always taken Frank's diagnosis with a grain  of salt. Part of my skepticism has to do with  that increasing  bloated leviathan,  the psychiatric in­ dustry, whose ever-expanding DSM has become so lengthy that most  people will qualify  for one disorder  or  another  over the course of a lifetime, making sanity  itself a form  of deviance. It doesn't help that Prue invokes it every time Frank  strikes a nerve, as though  his provocations were nothing but the illness, ventrilo­ quized. Not since her childhood, at least as far as I know, has he suffered   the  pivots  from  elation  to  despair  that  characterize manic depression. What she calls his "mania" strikes me more as a weakness for grandstanding. "It's not that I see things  or anything, when the gaps set in," Frank  continues, through a mouthful of croissant. "And it's not depression. It's that everything ... how to put it ... signifies." Feeling his eyes on me, I say, ''I'm not sure what you mean  by that, Frank." "Have you ever been to Grand  Central Station?" "Sure." "When  you walk in, what do you hear?" I blow out my cheeks, defeated-as usual-by his passionate sincerity. " I don't know ... footsteps?" "Voices, kid." He throws  up his arms, showering  my lap with crumbs.  "Imagine  that  you could  comprehend-couldn't  help but comprehend-every conversation  taking  place in that  hall. That the voices untangled into words, hundreds  of words, each one significant." "Fuck," I mutter, so distracted  I've missed our exit. Traffic  is mounting. The  detour will cost us half an hour, at least. "... what it felt like," Frank  is saying now. " I could have been walking down any godforsaken street, sober as hell, and become suddenly aware of the wind, the vowel called 'wind,' aware of the trees and  their dances, and it's not that I could have named  the language they spoke, or report on it now, except to say that every­thing, everything, meant." Through the mist a row of flashing  lights comes into view, indicating the source of the gridlock: a totaled van-half-scorched, despite the drizzle. Shallow flames lap at the engine. "You look  tired,"  Frank   erupts,  clapping  my  shoulder  so firmly that I swerve. "What's  on your plate these days, kiddo?" ''I'm doing fine, Frank." "Work?  Trouble in paradise?" "Prue's fine. We're fine." With a spurt of dread, I wonder  whether it sounds as though I am protesting too much. Things have been strained  between us lately-inevitably, I suppose,  given the  stress of her  upcoming tenure decision, though  that can't be all it is. We have never been this out of sync before. Last week, if only to set myself at ease, I bought  us discount tickets to the Gal:ipagos for the winter holi­day. She wrote her dissertation  on the mating rituals of the albatross, and has always dreamed  of seeing it in its natural  habitat. To change  the subject I add, "She's very touched that  you're coming." This  "touched"  is an  accusation,  neither  intended  nor  de­ served. Frank  has been present for most of Prue's triumphs and setbacks. Too present, at times. "You'll enjoy yourself," I say gently. "There'll be a party  at our  place after the lecture. Did she tell you? You'll get to meet some of her colleagues, and  Walt's bringing May." Walt is Prue's younger brother, refugee ofEnron's marketing team  and  a subsequent, financially ruinous divorce. We have seen more of him  and  his seven-year-old  daughter than usual since their  move to Central  Falls. Thanks to his ex-wife's addic­tion to painkillers, he has full custody. Frank offers me the final claw of bread, which I refuse. He says, ''Assumed  I'd have to field some eggheads." Over time, I have learned  to smile at his contempt  for aca­ demia.  Prue, who  shares some of his scorn for  the  chattering class, despite being one of us herself, shrugs  off most of his jabs. I read them as deflected  self-reproach, the chagrin of an intellec­ tual who never made much of his mind. "Supper?" Frank gestures at a blue sign overhead. "You  just ate," I say, although  I could  use a proper  coffee. We'll be home well after dinner  at this rate. "Didn't  hit the spot," he says. He roots around  in his pocket, producing a washcloth  too late to catch his sneeze. As he mops his nose I merge into the exit lane, provoking  a blast from  the truck  behind  us. Frank  scratches his head, his white hair so thick he has to dig to reach the scalp. He says, "You've read it, yes?" Prue's  lecture,  he must  mean.  She  hasn't  shared  the  docu­ ment with me, and I hadn't considered asking her to. Public lec­ tures are a rote affair at the College, well advertised but sparsely attended. Since my first  appointment, I have delivered  two for the  Philosophy Department. Both attracted  a  modest  turnout, and  the second boosted my upcoming tenure case. If it goes over well, Prue's should do the same. "Wouldn't  want to ruin the surprise,"  I say. The  off-ramp  deposits us onto a lunar  stretch  of banks and car dealerships. The  diner, glowing on our left, looks festive by comparison. Across the road, a green air puppet throbs  in time with our turn signal. "You're in for one," Frank  mutters. His voice is freighted with what he isn't saying: I love her more. He has probably read multi­ ple drafts  of the speech  by now. Despite everything,  my heart goes out to him. He has so little else to occupy his days that I can hardly reproach him for caring so fiercely. "She mentioned she'd gloss the birdsong study," I say. The  experiment,  which tested songbirds'  ability to discrimi­nate between melodies, was published over the summer  in Nature Communications, a distinguished  multidisciplinary journal.  It is Prue's first  contribution   to  the  study  of  animal   "languages," which, after languishing for thirty  years, has recently resurfaced as a branch of biolinguistics. Thankfully, her approach bears no likeness to the hijinks that  passed for research in the seventies- anthropomorphized chimps, sex with dolphins, and worse-but the phrase itself still doesn't strike her as the oxymoron it is. Most discouraging  about  the recent scholarship I have skimmed  is its interchangeable  use of the terms "communication" and "lan­ guage," a confusion  to which Prue succumbs  regularly. When  I press her, she usually concedes that  communication-the ex­ change  of information-is not  remotely synonymous  with  lan­ guage,  that  sine  qua  non  of thought:  a finite  set  of elements capable, like the Arabic numerals, of infinite variation. We park  before the diner-all chrome  and scabbed leather. Though it is barely six, and a Thursday, the place is close to full. "So," Frank  says, after we order. "Birdsong." He straightens his knife. The  lines between  his sharp  gray eyes have deepened  since June, when I saw him  last. His brows, set high on his forehead, give him a look of permanent  surprise. "You're the expert, I hear," I say.   According to Prue, Frank  had badgered his local library into subscribing to Nature Communications, and would have invited half the town of Chester to her speech, had she not talked him down. "What  do you know?"  he says, tucking  his napkin  into his collar. His belligerence usually amuses me, but now I feel a stab of indignation, blunted by weariness. Before meeting Frank, I had allowed myself to imagine  him as a surrogate parent, cosmic rec­ ompense  for  losing  my own.  No  such luck. Though we have made  our  peace with  one another  over the  years, each reunion reaffirms that Prue is all we share. "Well,"  I concede, "Prue's team  began by recording a phrase of birdsong, and then ..."   The   waitress  descends  with  my  coffee  and  turkey  salad. Frank, a longtime vegetarian, has ordered lentil soup. As she sets his bowl before him  he catches her lightly on the wrist, pushing her bracelet aside to reveal a tattooed Arabic phrase. "Urn ..." She retracts her arm, glancing at me. "Sorry," Frank  says. "Couldn't see it." "Please excuse him," I offer, mortified, but she is already hur­ rying off. "Frank;" I lean forward. "That was-" "The body as a page ..." He rolls his fist over one of his pack­aged saltines. "Never got one myself. Never saw the appeal." Laughter  flares from  the  booth  behind  me, followed by in­ fant babble. " I interrupted you," Frank  says. Though he is thin, there is a softness about his jaw. His fore­ head glints. Sweating and weight gain are side effects of Clozaril. As he tears open the cellophane, crumbling his crackers into his soup, I can't help but marvel at the fact that not even an antipsy­ chotic can neutralize him. "About  the  experiment."  He  glances  up at  me. "You were saying?" "Right."  It all seems so ludicrous,  suddenly-the exchange with the waitress, his soliloquy in the women's restroom, Prue's birds and his obsession with them-that I laugh. "What?" he says. "Sorry." I recover. "Exhaustion." "You're very kind  to drive me all this way." It's nothing,   I almost say. Instead I take a bite of turkey. "You haven't read the study," Frank says, addressing his soup. "Of course I have," I lie. Prue had summarized it for me. No point in wading through  the jargon myself. "So what did she prove?" His spoon quavers as he lifts it to his mouth, emptying  back into  the  bowl.  He  tries again. Essential  tremor.  According  to Prue, the fluttering in his hands  will only worsen with  time. "Nothing monumental," I oblige. "The birds responded dif­ferently to different  configurations of the same sounds." Frank sucks his teeth. To defuse his glare I add, "Which  in­ dicates that there may be a grammar to their songs, but the study is hardly conclu-" "Speech." Frank stabs the air with his spoon. "Their  songs are speech." There is a note in  his voice-somewhere between  wonder and  rage-I have not heard  before. His eyes glitter. "Did Prue say that?"  I ask, carefully. "Or is that your-" "Tell me," he says abruptly, leaning back. "Do you give a sin­gle crap about your wife's work?" I set down my fork, embarrassed to feel my cheeks  go hot. "That's a ridiculous question, Frank." Feigning innocence now, he shrugs. "Listen."  I lock eyes with a patron  to our left. " I don't  know what game you're trying to play here. Prue added a feather to her cap. I'm very proud of her. What  more do you want me to say?" Frank  sniffs. To my disgust, he raises his bowl to his mouth, downing the sludgy remains of his soup. When he has finished it off he says, "You don't get it, do you?" I gird myself. Behind me, the baby shrieks. Before he can speak again our waitress reappears, smiling nervously. As she leans down  to clear Frank's bowl her scent­ floral, with an undertow of musk-wafts toward me. "We'll take the check, thanks," I say, feeling, in spite of every­thing, a pang of desire. "No, Prue didn't say that," Frank says, too loudly. " I read it in the goddamn New York Times." One  pill  by dinnertime, Prue  had  said.   Promise me  you'll watch him take it. "That   guy"-he points at a heavy man in the corner, sitting alone-"and those guys"-a couple-"and them"-a family­ "they've all heard the news, probably. So have laypeople all over the  States." Suddenly  plaintive,  he adds: "It's a  breakthrough, and  nobody-"   "Are your meds on you?" I interrupt. "Nobody  saw it coming." "Are they in the car?" "The implications ... " "Go get them." I toss the  keys across the table, desperate  for solitude. He stares at me. Only when I pull out my phone does he obey, trudging down the aisle of booths and through the door. The  Times?   He  must  have been  hallucinating.  I  wake  the phone, Googling  Prue's name and a few relevant keywords. But there it is, seven entries down: an  article titled  "Mind  or  Bird­ brain?" published last month. Numbly, I click the link, only to find Prue's study buried in a middle paragraph. The citation is respect­ ful, but decidedly tangential, and the article is online only. I face the  window,  my reflection  yielding to a view of the parking lot and the streaking lights beyond. It has gotten darker. By the diner's neon glare the strip mall looks even more desolate than it did when we arrived. No sign of Frank, from here, nor of our Subaru. As a hatchback  reverses out of its spot, one taillight blown, I feel my stomach plunge. Lunacy, to trust  him with  the keys. Snatching my phone, I bolt for the door, nearly colliding with our  waitress, who is shouldering a tray of ice cream  sun­ daes. She gasps, catching one of the teetering glasses, but another tips forward,  sloughing  off its whipped  cream  and  pitching  its cherry onto a nearby table. "Sorry," I call out, registering the sudden  hush. When  I turn back Frank  is standing in the threshold. "Where's  the fire?"  he says. As the door eases closed behind him, his bib flutters.   "Christ."  I stumble over myself. "I thought  you'd taken ... " "It's a nice car, but not that nice." He pats my shoulder and then bends-wincing-to help the waitress clean the mess. By the time I fetch some extra  napkins from  the  bar they are finished,  and  the voices around  us have nsen  agam. "Your pill?" I venture, when we sit back down. "Finis." He slides the keys across the table. The  tightness  in his voice suggests otherwise.  Bunching  up his napkin  he adds, as though  sensing my misgivings, "Entitled to some privacy, aren't I?" Our   waitress  returns   with  the  check. As  I fumble  for  my card, Frank  hands her a twenty-dollar bill. We are quiet for most of the next hour. Frank  leans his head against  the window, his breath smoking up the glass. When  he starts  to snore,  I turn  the audiobook  on low, relaxing  into  the author's account of Chomsky's teenage years. "God's  dead," Frank  mumbles. My phone trills. I pull it out to find an unfamiliar number­ a telemarketer, probably-and switch it on silent. "Cognitive  science is  way beyond  universal  grammar,"  he adds, over the narrator. He casts me the steely look that still has the power to unnerve me, to remind  me of what he does all day in his attic apartment, crowded  with  secondhand books. For  all his dogmatizing, the man is formidably well read. "I thought  you were sleeping," I say. We  have reached  South   Kingston,  and  are  weavmg  now through  the warren  of roads flanking the campus.  Music thuds from a ramshackle  house, and then recedes. In a moment  there is only fog again, everything black but the shining road and the tall silence of the pines. "You're pissed," Frank  says. ''I'm  just tired." "If it's about  before, don't bother." He claps me on the knee. "It is what it is. You are  who  you are.  I'm her dad.  I'll  always think she could have done better." "Jesus, Frank," I say, mortified to feel myself blushing again. He laughs. ''I'm  just playing with you, kid." Instead of replying I jab the volume button, and the car goes mute. He glances at me, then says gruffly: "You know I'm here for you, if you ever need me." We  pull into  our  driveway,  pebbles  crunching under  the wheels. The  living room  light  is on,  and  I wonder  as I turn off the gas whether  I have imagined the dash of motion  by the outdoor stairs, receding now behind the elm. Our upstairs neigh­ bor, the pianist, it must be. Out  for a smoke. Frank  squeezes my wrist. ''I'm serious." "You're the one I'll turn  to," I say with irony, though it comes out as fatigue. The  back door opens and  Prue  steps out, her face awash in the headlights.  Her eyes are smiling,  but her breath  is clouding my view of the rest of her face. ''I've been calling," she says, coming around  to my side of the car. "What  happened  to you guys?"   "Sorry." I check my phone to find  I've missed her twice. "It was getting late, so we stopped for a bite." She folds her arms, shivering. Her hair is wet, her cheeks raw from  the shower. Ducking her head, she waves at Frank, but he is clambering out of his seat. To me she murmurs, "He  took it?" "Of course." I kiss her forehead. "Now  get inside before you freeze." "Pumpkin!" Frank  crows, approaching us. Prue steps away from me, organizing her face into the look of bright repose she wears for her immediate family. Frank  reaches for her, dropping his duffel bag on the gravel. "Hey, Dad," she says. He traps her in a hug so tight she rolls her eyes. "Calm down, Frank." I hoist his bag onto my shoulder, squinting against the cold. "She's not going anywhere." Excerpted from The Study of Animal Languages: A Novel by Lindsay Stern All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.