How to Be Hu­man: A Novel by Paula Co­cozza

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Mary Green has a baby on her back step. “The sur­prise came not from see­ing the baby, but from see­ing what was around her. A baby on the back step. It was the step that was wrong.” With those brief sen­tences in the sec­ond para­graph of How to Be Hu­man, de­but nov­el­ist Paula Co­cozza lets read­ers into a space in which per­cep­tion is es­pe­cially cryp­tic. There is noth­ing sur­pris­ing about a baby, but doorsteps be­come highly sus­pi­cious when they have ba­bies on them.

Mary, a thirty-four-year-old Lon­doner with a re­cent bro­ken en­gage­ment and a house that is now her own, finds the child mid­way through the novel’s plot, a dis­cov­ery that both in­tro­duces the novel and reap­pears, ver­ba­tim, mid­way through it. In the scene’s first it­er­a­tion, a few more clues about the toy­ing-with-per­cep­tion story that will soon un­fold emerge in Mary’s scru­tiny of her doorstep par­cel: The baby’s pupil is “deep gray-blue vel­vet, re­plete with color yet in de­nial of its color,” Co­cozza writes. “De­liv­ery, de­liv­er­ance, she mused. Which was right? And what sort of damn brain did she have that in a mo­ment of cri­sis it wanted to pick at the gaps be­tween words?”

Those ver­bal in­ter­stices are even more salient when they are pre­sented as com­ing not from a hu­man’s brain but from that of a fox. The emer­gent cen­tral fig­ure in Mary’s uni­verse — her fas­ci­na­tion turned com­pan­ion, ally, and ob­ses­sion — is a fox, whose point of view we some­times lean up against. “Tip tap tip tap went the wood louse across the. Leaf tipped. Louse flipped. All those lit­tle legs, wag­gling fas­ci­nat­ingly.” Sen­tences trun­cate, words dis­tend, and senses as­cend in the fox’s world.

Mary’s fox vis­its her gar­den from the woods be­hind her house, a “patch of waste­land, but mag­i­cal for all that” in the midst of east Lon­don. As his vis­its be­come more reg­u­lar, and as hu­man and fox de­velop a rou­tine of spend­ing time to­gether in the gar­den, Mary starts leav­ing work ear­lier and ear­lier. They lie next to each other atop a blan­ket, and Mary talks to him: “He was so easy to talk to. He seemed to un­der­stand her.”

Co­cozza’s novel blends a nar­ra­tive of yearn­ing — of seek­ing some­thing be­yond what hu­mans can pro­vide — and do­mes­tic comedy. Mary’s neigh­bors are not as smit­ten with the fox as she is. When her neigh­bors Eric and Michelle — who are jug­gling a tod­dler and a baby, amid fre­quent house­hold hys­ter­ics — host a bar­be­cue, the fox’s cameo prompts a vig­i­lante pur­suit, com­plete with torches. Mary’s ex Mark, an at­tendee at the bar­be­cue, uses the op­por­tu­nity to demon­strate his dom­i­neer­ing hero com­plex.

Mary is hor­ri­fied by the partiers, “drunken hu­mans sprawled on blan­kets soppy with spilt beer,” yet her ac­tions in­tro­duce ques­tions about her own hu­man­ity ver­sus an­i­mal­ity. Her role in the nar­ra­tive is a murky one, her re­li­a­bil­ity sus­pect. Co­cozza does a stel­lar job of rais­ing ques­tions about the na­ture of hu­man­ity (but not an­swer­ing them, de­spite the prom­ise of the ti­tle), amid lan­guage that is in­ven­tive and in­tri­cate.

At times the novel’s mo­men­tum dips; the un­equal hu­man-fox re­la­tion­ship does not al­ways yield much ac­tiv­ity. Yet its pe­cu­liar way of pre­sent­ing fun­da­men­tal el­e­ments of per­son­hood is never less than cap­ti­vat­ing. Soli­tude and love have rarely been such cu­ri­ous com­pan­ions. — Grace Paraz­zoli

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