"Aspiring" cavities, a "long-haired" star, and ice "impersonating" the road: The Role of Animacy in Leni Zumas’s The Listeners
Throughout the novel, jumbled animacy amplifies the protagonist’s central existential distress.
Most language lovers have heard of personification, which is the attribution of human characteristics, emotion, and behavior to animals, inanimate objects, or ideas. The opposite device, objectification, dehumanizes a person, reducing them to a thing. What is striking about Leni Zumas’s The Listeners is the way these two techniques are unified in one approach to animacy as a lens for the world of the protagonist—a world where the hierarchy of animacy is flattened. Throughout the novel, jumbled animacy amplifies the protagonist’s central existential distress.
Quinn and her brother mourn the death of their sister, who was struck by a stray bullet as she slept in a bed next to Quinn. Quinn’s trauma is revealed indirectly in the dissociated way she moves through her youngish adult life. Her perception of the world is filtered through a muddled perception of animacy that is represented by a spectrum rather than a scale. Quinn is haunted by visions of blood and brains and decomposition. She won’t eat anything that was formerly alive. She is both perpetually haunted by the loss of her sister and also intruded on by her spirit. The messiness of Quinn’s boundary between what is and isn’t alive is conveyed via descriptions throughout the story that subtly add and subtract animacy.
In my last post, I examined animacy as exploited in the incantation of one of the witches in Macbeth. As briefly described there, animacy is a feature of nouns that are living or sentient. Some languages make multiple (grammatically significant) distinctions according to a gradient hierarchy. For English, the simple relevant scale is:
human > animate > inanimate
We are familiar with the boundary of animacy being transgressed by authors and poets when they use the device of personification. In this novel, the entire contents of the world of the story are subject to interpretation through an animacy spectrum as perceived by the grieving protagonist. The way she conveys animacy underscores the motif of animacy confusion.
In linguistics, animacy is usually represented as a binary feature of nouns, [+/- animate]. Some verbs and adjectives impose animacy restrictions, positive or negative, on the noun within their phrase. For example, injured only modifies a noun that is [+animate], e.g. driver, politician, hamster, but not *car, *faucet, *book. Similarly, broken will modify a noun that is [-animate], e.g. candlestick, bus, mirror, but not *aunt, *baby, *camel. Sometimes words can switch value in a figurative sense (as with objectification in the phrases “broken person” or “broken spirit”). However, the Zumas examples reach beyond everyday figures of speech.
Examples where [-animate] —> [+animate]
Ice cubes kicked against his teeth.
The amp had been banished to the hour of between five and six and absolutely zero after dinner because the racket made Mert want to cut off her ears.
When I tried to swallow, the wedged potato resisted.
So all those aspiring cavities can get their due.
Every atom of killed raisin hit my lung hairs.
Through black sky jumped a long-haired star.
Well, you might not have to deal with this in the ocean, but on land, ice impersonates the road.
The verbs and qualities in the italicized examples are reserved for use with animate nouns under normal circumstances: to kick, to be banished, to resist, to aspire, to be killed, to jump, to be long-haired, to impersonate. Here, their interaction with inanimate nouns makes the reader take a second reflect on the sense of these words and phrases, and the result helps richly convey Quinn’s unique mindset. These examples from the text are not comprehensive; they are simply some of my favorite ones that illustrate this phenomenon.
In musical theater and in opera, the instrumental music amplifies the emotionality of the story in another realm. Similarly with The Listeners, by reaching inside of words and phrases to manipulate the dial of animacy, Zumas is regulating a typically untapped resource to convey the protagonist’s perspective. These examples are not merely exploiting a literary device to craft cool phrases in disparate descriptions. The approach is more comprehensive than that—animacy is the score underpinning the story.
Zumas does not limit the impact of animacy shift to conveying objects as animate. Animate nouns also lose their animacy in a similar animacy-disrupting fashion.
Examples where [+animate] —> [-animate]
Lawyers and salesclerks, custodians and telemarketers, all rumpled from the day—we sidestepped them.
I was only half girl, so lanky and teatless, never scenic from across a room.
I stormed my brain for something to say.
But Riley padded in, smiling, then not smiling when he noticed the blanketful of body.
He got a napkin and cleaned my neck and my ear’s hot shell.
The bullet made a door [in the sister’s skull] and out out out it came, red water and brain.
These examples of objectification perform the animacy switch in the other direction. Rumpled, scenic, being stormed, constituting a “blanketful” or a shell, or a door. The preponderance of examples with animacy flipping on or off illustrates how animacy shifting, not merely personification or objectification in isolation, names the relevant effect. Animacy for Quinn is a spectrum rather than a hierarchy. Zumas’s protagonist questions whether animacy can both come and go, imagining her deceased sister being still present with her in some way, and also seeing death where it isn’t.
A final example illustrates, in one (four-word!) sentence, a case of both personification and objectification:
Green foam drank me.
Here, foam is performing the action—doing the drinking—and is thus personified. However, Quinn is what is consumed: drank me; she objectifies herself. In other words, animacy distinctions run amok.
What Zumas does with animacy in this novel is more comprehensive than composing isolated instances of personification and objectification. These two devices are used under the larger umbrella of unified animacy muddling, to the end of amplifying a defining characteristic of Quinn’s perception.
Having illustrated the defiance of expectations regarding animacy in these examples from The Listeners, I hope new kinds of descriptions and actions will sprout for writers interested in pushing language new places.