Little Expressionless Animals

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Summary

Little Expressionless Animals is a story about Julie Smith, a woman whose mother chose a man over her children and left Julie and her autistic brother on the side of the road to watch cows chew grass. Growing up, Julie and her brother get locked in a room with only the encyclopedia for entertainment. As a result, both children are ideal Jeopardy! contestants.

An effect of Julie’s new found fame: Faye feels that now that she is in the public eye, people will be clamoring to pin her sexuality down. She asks Julie, the ‘reason’ behind Julie’s current sexual preference, to help her think of an explanation that would satisfy the questioner. Here, her own identity becomes like a question on the Jeopardy board and must have logic. Julie suggests: “say lesbianism is simply one kind of response to Otherness. Say the whole point of love is to get your fingers through the holes in the lover’s mask. To get some kind of hold on the mask, and who cares how you do it” (32). With the masks, the obvious point is that everyone wears one, meaning everyone’s hiding behind something. Faye rejects this suggestion. Julie’s face “has the texture of something truly alive, an elastic softness, like a ripe sheath, or a pod. It is vulnerable and has depth” and “everything about her is sort of permeable” (13). Her permeability makes her ideal for television.

The story is presented non-linearly.

This seems to be Wallace's most beautiful prose piece, beginning with vivid images of “the children’s hands, which are small, are placed on the wooden post” (Wallace 3).

This story also features line drawings, which perhaps relate to the protractor of the story. He also incorporates news headlines, such as “‘Jeopardy!’ Queen Dethroned After Three-Year Reign,” adding suspense and weight to the narrative (8).

Characters

  • Julie Smith, Jeopardy! contestant
  • Faye Goddard
  • Dee Goddard
  • Janet Goddard, Jeopardy! director
  • Muffy deMott, P.R. coordinator
  • Alex Trebek, Jeopardy! host
  • Bert Convy
  • Pat Sajak
  • Merv Griffin, Jeopardy! producer
  • Merv's nameless right-hand man

Themes/Motifs

Animals

Julie dislikes animals because their faces are by their very nature expressionless. The cow she meets on the side of the road while being abandoned by her mother just chews its cud all day and shows nothing on its face (40). She also relates men to animals, saying that neither do men have any expression on their faces (41). Yet never does she claim women do have expression, especially since her mother is often described as either blank or loose-faced. It appears that Julie for the most part considers all people to be little expressionless animals, and thus she loves Faye because Faye's face actually shows her things.

The reason Julie ultimately loses Jeopardy!, however, is because of animals. She cannot answer any questions about animals, while her autistic brother (perhaps an extreme representative of her idea of expressionless humans) knows and loves everything there is to know and love about animals. In the end, she cannot "survive" Jeopardy! because of her inability to connect with animals, in the same way that it is difficult for her to live in a society where everyone seems to be his own expressionless animal. It is impossible for her to escape a world of expressionlessness. One can't help but to wonder if this relates to Wallace's fears about the lack of true expression in contemporary fiction, as discussed in his interview with Larry McCaffery.

Sexuality

Two of the stories characters, Julie Smith and Faye Goddard, are involved in a homosexual relationship with one another. At various points throughout the story there are attempts to explore what it is that shapes our sexuality and the reasons why individuals exhibit the sexuality that they do. On pages 33-42 Julie and Faye concoct several imaginative explanations for being lesbians, creating grandiose scenarios of traumatizing events that led them to prefer the same sex. The final scenario is presumably the closest thing to a legitimate explanation of her sexuality that Julie can produce. She describes how when she looks into the faces of men, they reflect no expression, but rather "different configurations of blankness," in the same way that animals reflect a merciless absence of expression (41).

Sexuality becomes a minor but pervasive aspect of the story. On the one hand, people want to pin down Julie's and Faye's sexuality: " 'Except what if I'm a lesbian?' Faye asks. . . . 'I mean, what if I am a lesbian , and people ask me why I'm a lesbian?' " (32). But at the same time, there are those who do not want to know the true answer: " 'I say two words to you, Faye. I say F.C.C., and I say separate apartments. We do not I repeat not need even a whiff of scandal' " (28). It is clear that the scandal involved here would be more than just the thought of Faye feeding answers to Julie; the idea that a contestant and behind-the-scenes worker are involved in a homosexual relationship makes it a much bigger story. Faye never discloses to Julie who exactly she is afraid will ask, and her worrying bothers Julie, who thinks it shouldn't matter anyway. As mentioned above, the reader is given a possibly true explanation of why Julie is a lesbian, because men have no expression and nothing to "hold on to." But the sense one really gets from this story is that sexuality isn't neatly defined even by each person for herself, and therefore it shouldn't matter; people shouldn't attempt to define it for others.

Faces

One way faces can be important metaphors is through representation, the idea that the face is a physical image or manifestation of an idea. There is discussion of how Julie represents, or is the human face of, facts and trivia and thus the game of Jeopardy! itself.

" 'Merv posits that this force, ladies, gentleman, is the capacity of facts to transcend their internal factual limitations and become, in and of themselves, meaning, feeling. This girl not only kicks facts in the ass. This girl informs trivia with import. She makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, induce, cathart. She gives the game the simultaneous transparency and mystery all of us in the industry have groped for, for decades. A sort of union of contestantorial head, heart, gut, buzzer finger. She is, or can become, the game show incarnate. She is mystery.' " (25)

Because literal faces are crucial for expression and communication between people, Julie constantly focuses on people's faces. Several times the phrase "loose face" (i.e. 3) comes up, denoting a sort of expressionless and drooping face that Julie dislikes. "Blank, silent men" with vague relationships to Julie's mother came and went throughout her childhood. After being left on the side of the road with her brother and staring into the expressionless face of a cow, Julie has a face-related vehement dislike for both animals and men: " 'Tell them that, even now, you cannot stand animals, because animals' faces have no expression. Not even the possibility of it. . . . Tell them to stand perfectly still, for time, and to look into the face of a man. A man's face has nothing on it. Look closely. . . . All the faces do is move through different configurations of blankness.' " (41) As with other forms of expression, like poetry, Julie finds faces beautiful only when they are truly expressive and not the blank and thoughtless masks she finds on men.

Love

The concept of love is explored (though never really defined) through a variety of relationships. The most obvious one involves Julie and Faye, but while Faye considers it love, Julie is unsure. It is likely because of the various rather meaningless relationships her mother had that Julie is not at all sure what it means to be in love and with someone else--although she does have some ideas: "Julie has told Faye that she believes lovers go through three different stages in getting really to know one another. First they exchange anecdotes and inclinations. Then each tells the other what she believes. Then each observes the relation between what the other says she believes and what she in fact does." (9-10) Despite what her mother did, however, Julie does not hate her, and probably loves her. She certainly loves her autistic brother, even if he can easily be blamed for the abandonment: " 'I got so I associated him with my identity or something. My right to take up space. . . . [The man who was with her] made her leave him. I think she left me to look out for him. I'm thankful for that. If I'd been without him right then, I don't think there would have been any me left.' " (11) For Julie, a sense of identity very much goes along with loving someone so much, explaining why she is cautious to add on to the people she thinks she loves, because it can change who she is.

Voice

Generally, this story is told in third-person narration with a non-chronological organization.

Context

Jeopardy! is a television game-show involving trivia questions where the questions and answers have been reversed. The show has aired for decades and is generally so well-known it (and its host, Alex Trebek) have been spoofed on shows like "Saturday Night Live."

Criticism