Discovering the city with Brandon Taylor’s short-story collection as a companion.
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Filthy Animals opens with the book’s main character, Lionel, attending a party at a “Near East Side duplex separated by a tiny cul-de-sac from the wide-bottomed cottages that fronted Lake Monona.” He’s a grad student making his social debut after surviving a suicide attempt, unsure of what he might find among a group of friends who aren’t as unmoored as he is, heading towards a modest home that’s wealth-adjacent.
In this 2021 collection of short stories, author Brandon Taylor ties Lionel’s narrative through multiple sections of the book, always circling back to Madison as the main setting. Taylor himself spent years in Madison pursuing a degree in biochemistry before heading to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Madison in Filthy Animals reflects that experience. It’s a city that people move to and away from, the way Taylor did, with permanent residents playing second fiddle to the transients attracted by UW-Madison and their struggle to find solace in their temporary home.
As a new, permanent resident of Madison who moved here without any ties to the university, the Madison of Filthy Animals is foreign to me. When Lionel leaves the party, he crosses through Orton Park back towards his apartment near the Square. Taylor describes what he sees as “mismatched houses. Queen Anne and modernist and Dutch colonial, all mixed together” as a way to show how the aesthetics of stability can take many forms and still feel inaccessible to a student in flux. For me, these houses and their yellow trim, ornate shutters, and decorative turrets are simply neighbors. When I pass by them on a run or driving to the grocery, I see a reflection of myself as a full-time resident. Their permanence lends me a comfort that Lionel, as someone who will probably leave Madison, can never find in them.
In that way, the book takes me into a world that I don’t ever see as someone who moved here in my late 30s. This version of Madison is best illustrated by how its characters move through the city. Centered around people in their mid-to-late 20s at the crossroads of interpersonal conflict, most of the book moves from apartment to apartment, mismatched furniture and broken windows coloring the background for intense conversations. There aren’t many forays to restaurants or stores, and the rest of the city—including its landmark buildings—exists as a backdrop to pass through. Alek, a dancer with a health scare struggling to connect with his brothers, snaps photos of the Capitol building lit up in the snow, but decides to delete it and send a hazy shot of Lake Monona at dusk instead. He doesn’t linger on the Square or the shore: both are just relics for a text thread to prove a location. It’s almost as if the book is saying that, as a student, he’s not fully welcome to claim either landmark.
The city doesn’t open up that much more for Sigrid and Marta, a public works employee in Baraboo and a UW-Madison grad student entangled in a love story. They cook for each other, they lay around in bed, and on occasion, they might venture out to meet Sigrid’s cohort at a cheap bar. Nobody is struggling to make rent in the story, but that’s because they both still have roommates. On their first date, at a nice restaurant, Marta declares, “I don’t know anything about any of this,” gesturing towards “Sigrid’s half-eaten twenty-dollar orecchiette, her own bowl, which had contained a fifteen-dollar Bolognese,” the prices written out on the page as an unfamiliar extravagance.
It’s clear that there’s a glass ceiling in Madison for the pre-professional class. All the amenities the city has to offer are ready and waiting—once you get a grown-up real job. In this world, Sigrid and Marta face the same sort of struggles any couple in a new relationship might have as it starts to get serious, only heightened as it’s the first time Marta has dated a woman while Sigrid is still living in a grad-student bubble. The reader gets a nice view of Marta’s small battles with her shifting identity, and how she learns to overcome them with someone who hasn’t had to face the harsh reality of a full-time job yet.
Each story in Filthy Animals is centered around those moments. Each character is in a state of transition, somehow, and each story ends with them having to find a way to be OK with that. Resolutions don’t come easy, like when Sylvia, a part-time nanny and part-time cook, has to comb dirt and sticks and bugs out of the hair of the toddler she cares for. As soon as Sylvia calms her down, though, she thinks about how she has to move along to her second job, the house where she cooks meals. When she prepares to leave, she hears the toddler upstairs thumping around, becoming, once again, unruly, unable to be quieted, and no longer her problem as a part-time nanny.
“For slightly too little money—it would be more in Manhattan, but what can she do about Wisconsin—she cooks meals and looks after the twins,” Taylor writes, hinting at Sylvia’s origins and her expectations of her new hometown. Sylvia’s vulnerability comes from losing her apartment during a terrible breakup, and it’s one of the only stories in which we get a stronger glimpse of permanent Madison residents: two different couples who are wealthy enough to hire her on as help, but not so wealthy that they’re able to keep her full-time. In order for Sylvia to make a living, the two couples share her services and the burden of her meager salary. As subtle of a moment as it is, Taylor’s Madison is reflective of the real one: thrifty well-off Midwesterners who view hiring a servant as an act of charity, albeit, one in which they still need to find a good deal. It’s hard to imagine the weight of that class critique if you’re not familiar with Madison’s demographics.
As a new resident, I admit, it’s easy to be overly charmed by this city. Most things I need are within walking distance, and I rarely have to leave my neighborhood, much less the city, to find the things that I want. Moving to Madison from Chicago made the housing market so much more affordable for me than it would be for any of the characters in Filthy Animals, but I also have a decade of earning ahead of them. Maybe they, too, could find the city open up to them more, if only they could stick it out for 10 years. Maybe Marta and Sigrid could do it, but maybe they move to Baraboo full-time. It doesn’t seem like there’s a path for Lionel or Sylvia to make headway.
Maybe that’s the specific draw of Filthy Animals for me. It’s like a field guide to navigating both the streets and the people of this city in a way I hadn’t seen before. As much as the characters all feel transformed by their life in Madison, a comfortable life in a growing mid-size Midwestern city is out of their grasp. Their options are to slip into administrative work for the University (like Lionel proctoring tests) or to move into service work (or being a literal servant, like Sylvia). Madison delivers them all small cuts, daily little digs that prevent them from fully rising out of their status. Maybe that makes each character’s minor triumphs feel so bold.
Or maybe the class consciousness of Filthy Animals is more subtle than I’m making it out to be. But it’s hard to read a passage where the main character is alienated by a row of houses that I could potentially afford to move into one day. This version of Madison isn’t one I see on a daily basis, so I’m grateful to get to see it through Taylor’s stories. Fiction can be a better reflective mirror than reality sometimes, and maybe more people who live here could use the reminder to take a look.