There aren’t many writers for whom you could plausibly argue that their longest, most sprawling work also serves as the best introduction to their work–but then, Michael Cisco is not (as the saying goes) most writers. Animal Money is the third of Cisco’s novels that I’ve read. Previously, I’d taken in Celebrant and The Narrator, both of which blended elements that wouldn’t be out of place in more traditional fantasy stories with unsettling narrative elements–hints that the setting might be a dream or a hallucination; a juxtaposition of the sense of wonder that often comes with the fantastical with a growing unease; a halting sense that something is very, very wrong. Animal Money, his latest novel, may well be the most accessible work of his that I’ve read. This is relative: the novel is close to 800 pages in length, and if its setting seems to be somewhat similar to our own world, Cisco periodically jolts the reader out of any sense of complacency. That sense of unease here is more subtle but no less present–a welcoming and disorienting ride that’s at once escapist, satirical, and brutally self-aware.
In 2014, Cisco’s translation of Julio Cortázar’s short story “Headache” was published at Tor.com. Cortázar is one of a handful of writers whose work looms large here–there are moments of mistaken identity, sinister plots, and satirical jabs at Byzantine levels of bureaucracy that recall the mood of novels like The Winners and 62: A Model Kit. The premise here is the sort of thing that could launch a dozen high-concept narratives: five economists jointly come up with a concept of money that acts with animal-like characteristics–i.e. the title phrase. “Animal money is creative money as opposed to merely circulating money,” one of the economists says.
But for all of its headiness this is far removed from, say, Michael Lewis’s nonfiction chronicles of the finance industry’s malfeasance. For one, the economists communicate via coded phrases and have distinguishing marks on their faces. A sequence in which the economists witness examples of animals themselves engaging in economic transactions moves from bizarre to absurd to sublime. And in some of their interactions with the larger world, they are treated in a manner closer to clergy than academics, with particular rites and rituals: “The blessing is done by pinching thumb and the first two fingers of one hand together and then making a dipping motion above the wallet, as if inserting a coin.”
The novel’s first half builds and builds–the economists come up with their theory and slowly begin to set it into motion, and find themselves up against a sinister, possibly homicidal, conspiracy. But even as the narrative flirts with convention, it turns weirder–as Jeff VanderMeer notes, even as the plot ostensibly advances, so does the sense of structural experimentation, as the book’s points of view gradually expand. So, too, does the tone of things, becoming more and more strange, and eventually (at times) echoing some of Samuel R. Delany’s late-60s work, as bodies shift and are remade.
There are also satirical jabs to the direction of the MTA’s automated subway announcements, including one in which Cisco perfectly captures the odd and sometimes jarring inflections by which they announce trains’ arrivals and delays. And there are brief moments where the narrative turns savagely metafictional: about three-quarters of the way through the book, the narration turns inward, addressing one aspect of the plot so far: “You’re just science fiction.”
Writing about Animal Money isn’t easy for two reasons: first, part of the pleasure and unease of reading it comes from its unpredictability; some of Cisco’s deftest maneuvers are best experienced cold. And second, for all that this novel is Cisco’s most accessible, it remains a work of fiction in which disorientation is one element that’s always close at hand. Some novels walk you through them; Cisco’s is much more about the process of discovery: of identity, of the ground rules of this fictional universe, and of the entire scope of his grandiose and surreal architecture. That certain things remain ambiguous even here is part of the point; that the focus of this novel is on ornate financial and governmental conspiracies that will shape the world of those outside of those circles–i.e. most of us–is quietly unsettling, a sinister element waiting patiently in the corner, not exactly looming, but always making its presence felt. Animal money may be a technical term, but it also suggests a kind of currency that’s fundamentally unknowable, that can turn on its bearer at any time. There’s plenty of horror here, if you know where to look, or even if you don’t.