What does it say about the state of current literature -- or perhaps my current emotional state -- that the most compelling new book I've read this year is a collection of lost-pet fliers?
Titled simply "Lost: Lost and Found Pet Posters From Around the World," Ian Phillips' anthology is culled from 10 years of collecting, yet initially it seems somewhat underwhelming. At first glance these fliers don't seem crazy or unusual enough to warrant publication. After all, we can find similar samples at the laundromat down the street or the telephone pole just outside our door.
But there is something lurking beneath their simple, banal surface, and that is where the brilliance of "Lost" lies. There is the absurdity of the first flier, in which the missing "bichon with apricot-colored ears" is pictured sitting on Santa's lap (is it the owner dressed as Santa, or did they go to the mall?). Then there is Linda, a pug whose only identifying detail is a "TUMOR LF/SIDE."
Phillips doesn't limit the missing menagerie to dogs either, though they seem to make up the majority of the submissions. Missing cats are, appropriately, given their own section, where readers can ponder the missing year of Kitty Lang, an office cat who, we learn in one of the occasional postscripts, returned as mysteriously as she left, bringing a feline companion she'd picked up along the way.
Some owners seem to go out of their way to make the missing animal as unappealing as possible, hoping, I imagine, to convince possible catnappers to just give the kitty up. Norman, for example, is described as "old and toothless ... with a dandruff problem and a flat face," but we are reminded he "is an important family member." A third section is devoted to birds -- mostly cockatiels, all distinguished by their orange cheeks -- and a final section features all other categories, from lizards and hamsters to a missing grilled cheese sandwich ("loves kids").
Comparisons can be made: The cats seem to have more children working on their behalf, with abstract crayon depictions accompanied by plaintive questions. "Have you scene [sic] my cat?" one asks. The dogs, on the other hand, seem more reckless or brave. Gracie the Doberman is missing after foiling a robbery and chasing the suspects into the distance. Several are the unexpected passengers in carjackings. Imagine the surprise of the couple who steal a Pontiac Trans Am and discover while speeding away that there is a Shar-Pei named Cleo in the back, and she isn't people-friendly.
Some have photos attached in bulk; others are poorly Xeroxed and some use a quickly sketched likeness. Others are depicted as cartoons. Is Lopez really a dead ringer for Felix the Cat? What pushes their content unexpectedly toward literature is the absence of details, which leaves room for readers' own imaginings; it is a quality most contemporary fiction lacks. In the foreign-language samples, it is the handwriting and the punctuation that communicate the message to those of us who are unilingual.
And there are many posters that include surprisingly elaborate narratives, following the recent theory that abducted humans will be treated better or even released by their captors if their loved ones go public and personalize the victim. Teddy "is like a son. My life has been absolute torment since he disappeared." A number of owners have elected to tell their story from the pet's point of view, as if the lost cat is trying to find itself, and would appreciate your help, thank you very much. Take Johnny for example, who confesses, "I just got all my shots and was supposed to get my male cat operation, so I ran away Thursday night when nobody was home."
Even Phillips, reached in his printer's shop in Toronto, has his favorites. "The most amusing is 'Turtle. Find Him.' The most moving: 'Lost Female Dog. Children Crying.' It says it all." One of the most disturbing examples in the book is a simple, text-only flier that reads like something out of a David Lynch film:
No collar, No legs,
Ask for Unca Tom Jennings
"This one is a little strange," Phillips agrees. "I have a large number of pet posters which are obvious fakes which I decided not to run in the book -- but this one I can't be sure about it. It could just be bad grammar -- the dog may be missing one leg ... but the 'Unca Tom' part sounds a little suspicious too. Who knows?"
Lest we think he's a freak, Phillips makes it clear he doesn't limit himself to collecting pet fliers. "All kinds of junk," he says. "Mostly stuff overlooked by other people. I collect notes that I find on the ground, taped to telephone poles -- many of which are written by people with far-fetched ideas about the world around them. Also diaries, love letters, old photographs -- all kinds. Postcards. Basically anything considered throwaway ephemera. Yard-sale paintings. Yearbooks. Carnival chalkware. Clocks. Antique books. Strange objects made from seashells. Antlers."
Currently petless, he's been considering taking the plunge. "I've been looking at guinea pigs," he admits. "I don't have any missing-pet posters for guinea pigs -- perhaps they are better adjusted to pet life?"
Meanwhile, I'm hoping he finds a way of publishing those antlers.