This is the third in a series of 52. For more information on this personal project go here: 52 Reads Project

Peg is a smart and hardworking roller derbyist who continues to improve and impress. I am a huge fan of tenacity and brains, so I am a huge fan of hers.  I had great fun cheering on the cool things she did on the track in Eugene this spring. Mountain Dew unofficially sponsors her life.


This week’s read is Acoustic Kitty by Bob Rybarczyk. Peg says, “The government implants listening devices in cats and tries to train them to be spies during the Cold War. It’s a really weird story, and I know you appreciate weird.”

I do. I really do.

This week’s blog is a little late due to the distracting nature of travel. I always think vacation means more time for reading and thinking, but my capacity for distraction has been at an all-time high. (Read: I had a lot of fun hanging out with my Mom.)

I read the first half of the novel in between drooling naps on a cross country flight from Seattle to Raleigh. My hypersomnia is not an indictment of the novel, cabin pressure always makes me sleepy. I reread a lot of that first half once I landed. Blinking in and out of consciousness is not ideal for reading comprehension.

Acoustic Kitty is indeed a weird little book. The author includes a note to explain that the government indeed launched a program codenamed Acoustic Kitty during the Cold War era. They intended to turn cats into covert listening devices. As usual, truth proves more absurd than fiction.

Rybarczyk takes inspiration from this historical high point and spins a literal take. His group of CIA operatives travel to Southern Missouri to set out on a misbegotten initiative to transform cats into clandestine listening devices.

The futility of this project is obvious to all from the outset, yet they bravely trudge on.

Arthur Monroe, our third person limited lens into the world of cat bugging, is a listening device specialist. He creates the tiny microphones that get surgically implanted in the cats. He is a loner, misanthrope, and not content to leave his work at the office. In his spare hours, he plants bugs in his neighbors’ apartments and listens their secret live and most intimate moments.

Once on the project, Monroe can’t resist bugging his co-workers’ hotel rooms. He finds out a lot more than he bargained for.

The book is set in the Cold War of late 1960s. It was published in 2007, before the public began willingly bugging ourselves with digital assistants, smart TVs, and the like. I wonder if the tone would be different if it were written now, eleven years later in the depths of our readymade scary/comedic political climate.

I tread in absurdist waters frequently in my own writing with varying success. One cogent piece of advice I have received is try to make the broader themes resonate a little more. Ionesco wrote his dangerously silly plays as a response to fascism, Vonnegut crafted weird worlds to thumb his nose at war and authority, even the Monty Python lads take stabs at venerated institutions like religion in their sketches and films. The plot of Acoustic Kitty, based on a fragment of truth that is pretty absurd on its own achieves the darkly funny feel of these works at points. However, the larger villains present in the plot: surveillance culture, misogyny, voyeurism, and even loneliness don’t resonate as starkly as they might. It’s a delightfully odd tale, but I wonder if Rybarczyk has more to say on these subjects that isn’t quite coming across in the sort of gut punches the best examples of this kind of fiction manage to land.

One sticking point, Rybarczyk devotes a lot of paragraphs to the men of this covert op leering at lone female coworker Ava. She has a great caboose and distracting breasts. Cool. While this sort of male gazing isn’t out of place in a 1960s narrative that is meditating on voyeurism, holy gosh, is it frustrating and repetitive to read. Ava actually does become a fully drawn character. She is the most competent human with measures of complexity and enviable bowling skills. That said, too much time that could have been spent on broader ideas or just more slapstick is insted devoted to leering at her parts.

My favorite bits of the book centered on the more broadly drawn characters; which, admittedly, is pretty normal for me. Subtlety is great, scenery chewing is better.  Vignettes of the Soviet targets meeting for lunch on a park bench interweave through the narrative. Eavesdropping on their constant bickering about sandwiches won’t end the Cold War, but is well worth listening in anyway. The aggro-masculine CIA agent who asserts the non-complex contents of his brain out loud rather than stewing in his juices like Monroe is a welcome foil and provides the most comedy. Not the kind of person I like to know in life, but a delight on the page.

As you might expect, there is a lot of cat death in this book. It is played for horrific laughs. I’m into that sort of dark comedy in fiction. If you are not, Acoustic Kitty is not for you.

Next up, Neuromancer by William Gibson recommended by Bob (actually his real name… I think!).

Further Reading:
Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco People start literally turning into rhinos destroying the fabric of society and instigating philosophical discussions in public squares, offices, and local watering holes. It continues to be the most influential thing I’ve read. (It’s a play, not a novel; or a film starring Zero Mostel and, sigh, Gene Wilder).

Call for the Dead (or any of the George Smiley novels) by John le Carré. Not at all comedic, but I love the complex and buttoned up world of British Intelligence in these novels.

I also always want to watch Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and don’t care who knows it.

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