What's the Deal with Sapient Pigs?



I'M NOT SURE whom Pyg is for. I thought it was for me, because it's a novel set at the turn of the 18th century about a clever pig—and hey, I like Jane Austen, Charlotte's Web, and the 1995 pig movie Babe. But, alas, Pyg doesn't give two oinks about me. This fictional tale of Toby the Sapient Pig, who learns to read and write and perform on the coal-dusted stages of England and Scotland, is more for history wonks.

But that's kinda the problem—history nerds won't know it's for them. It's not 'til an appendix at the end of author Russell Potter's debut novel that it becomes vaguely apparent that Toby was a real-life porker who actually trod the boards in a time when a learned-pig craze was sweeping the land, and audiences and historical figures alike were amazed by porcine theater acts. So this is a historical novel, but Potter ill-advisedly foregoes an intro or foreword or just a teensy sentence that explains this phenomenon. Without this interesting bit of context, Pyg is a rather dry story that just happens to have an educated pig as a narrator.

Toby the pig lays out his memoir starting from his early days as a piglet, learning his letters and numbers, living the life of a performer, and eventually attending Oxford and the University of Edinburgh. He's a priggish pig, but not without charm and a couple nice turns of phrase, so he makes for an inoffensive guide to the social mores of the late 1700s. But there's a slavish devotion to chronicling Toby's endless performances and (presumably) real-life journeys through the UK, complete with (presumably) fictional Forrest Gumpesque run-ins with historical figures like Robert Burns and Samuel Johnson. Not much happens, except loads of trotting about. Oh, and humans are cruel (but we already knew that, right?).

Potter's novel would've greatly benefited from some historical background (try Ricky Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women as a pre-Pyg primer); the ambling travels of Toby could've been intractably tied to what a pig might've thought about the whole endeavor of being humanity's jester. As is, Pyg is a slight novel about a smart pig, with the most pressing question remaining frustratingly unanswered: How'd he get so book smart by turning so many pages with those defiant little hooves?


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