André Alexis on Grief, Absurdity, and Horses

In your story “Houyhnhnm,” first a father and then his son develop a relationship with a horse they believe can speak English and discuss philosophical matters. How did this idea first come to you?

The story came about as a way to write about my father’s dementia and death without exactly writing about them. My father died in 2019. So I’d been living with my grief for years and couldn’t find a way to deal with it. But then, while I was living in Berlin, in 2021, I met a man whose family name was auf der Horst. The name sounded like both “horse” and “Horace,” which was my father’s first name. And that was enough to get me going. For one thing, the play on “horse” and “auf der Horst” was exactly my father’s sense of humor. For another, the collision of “Horace” and “horse” was perfect, because my father was a man who owned racehorses for most of his adult life. Finally, it occurred to me that I could write about a horse’s mental decline as a way of communicating the distress I felt at losing a parent to dementia. In the end, “Houyhnhnm” was a way for me to deal with emotionally nuclear material—my father’s death—from a safe distance, playfully, but without hiding the distress and sadness.

You titled the story “Houyhnhnm”—after the race of rational, speaking horses in “Gulliver’s Travels.” Is Jonathan Swift an influence of yours? And do you mean this story to be satirical?

Swift is an influence. The image of Lemuel Gulliver in his stable talking to a horse while avoiding the company of his family is striking and moving to me. But Swift’s influence is both positive and negative. I was thrilled by “Gulliver’s Travels” when I first read it. And, in my twenties, I loved all his work: “A Tale of a Tub,” “A Modest Proposal,” etc. And I think I’ve taken on some of his narrative distance—coldness, even—when I write about upsetting circumstances. But, ultimately, I don’t have the energy for satire. I mean, it takes too much moral conviction to break the world into the ridiculous (worthy of satire) and the praiseworthy (not for satire). I’m as repulsed by the satirical as I am attracted to it. Which probably makes my allusion to Swift’s creatures an interesting basis for a story about my father. I mean, although I loved my father a great deal, I was also wary of him, as all sons are wary of their fathers, I guess.

The narrator’s mother thinks that Xan, the horse, doesn’t actually speak, and that father and son have a shared delusion (and/or are ventriloquists). You leave open the possibility that she’s right. Could Xan be a normal horse onto which the narrator simply projects his grief and mourning?

The quick answer to this is “Yes. It’s very possible for Xan to be a normal horse onto which the narrator has projected his grief.” But I’d add that, in my experience, grief is a drug that induces visions. It distorts or heightens the world around you. So, instead of its being a projection, for the narrator, it could be taken as an unwanted and bittersweet trip.

Do you want the reader to know, for sure, what the “truth” is?

Definitely not, as I myself don’t know the truth here. Uncertainty and absurdity are aspects of grief, after all. So it’s up to the reader to decide where truth is or isn’t. On the other hand, Paul isn’t an unreliable narrator. He believes everything he writes. He’s convinced by what he experiences. And it’s interesting that he reports his mother’s doubts, that he reports her wariness of “reason.” Somewhere within him, he must know that the distinction between “reason” (our ability to calculate dispassionately) and “reasonable” (our taking into account the flaws of dispassionate calculation) is crucial. In the end, he sides with his father and Xan, but the fact that he presents his mother’s case is, maybe, a hopeful thing.

Paul suspects that Xan is named after Xanthus, an immortal horse in Greek mythology who was able to speak and prophesy—and actually prophesied the death of his owner, Achilles. Is this an early hint to the reader?

A hint? No, not really. That’s not how I work, usually. Xan’s name was appealing to me for the sound of it, as much as anything else. It’s only in retrospect, like with you, here, that I realize that my psyche, the part of me that works hardest on a first draft, has acted with the kind of consistency and control that I lack—at least, I’m unaware of my consistency when I write. I’m not surprised by your pointing out of this connection, though. And I think you’re right that, for the reader, this could be taken for a hint of some sort. But, really, it just confirms how little I know about what I’m doing when I write a first draft.

Paul’s father told extremely bad jokes, which are central to Xan’s attempts to understand human nature. How did you choose the jokes to use in the story?

The jokes were chosen at random. I was trying to remember the kind of jokes my father might have liked. And the jokes I used in the story struck me as ones my father might have told. That said, they were all pretty cerebral, all connected to science. As my dad was a doctor, and as I associate medicine with science, they’re pointed in a way that, again, I wasn’t aware of while writing my first draft.

A few years ago, you wrote about Tolstoy’s work “Kholstomer,” which tells a horse’s life story largely from the horse’s point of view, and you had some quibbles with it: “The story’s perspective is not sufficiently horse-like so that, while reading it, I sometimes find myself wondering why Kholstomer would bother to consider the implications of this or that bit of human behavior, why he is interested in subtleties of human language.” Is “Houyhnhnm” an attempt to explain why a horse might be interested in the subtleties of human language and behavior?

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