Nile Nightingale is a man on the run, but when he tries to seek sanctuary in an abandoned church in rural Quebecall chance of a low-key existence is scuppered by his discovery of 15-year-old wildlife protection activist Céleste Jonquères, who’s been dumped, barely alive, in the church’s graveyard. The dramatic meeting opens The Extinction Club, the third novel by Jeffrey Moore, an exploration of humanity’s pillaging of natural resources and the exploitation of animals.
Moore, who grew up in Toronto and attended U of T, is now based in Quebec, where the novel is set and where the events occurred that triggered his fictional investigation of human brutality towards animals. What was that event? “Huxley’s death,” Moore says. “Not the British author’s, but my cat’s. I have no proof, but I suspect it was a hunter’s steel trap that killed him. I’ve found several of these leg traps in the Laurentians—all of them illegal and all of which I’ve dismantled or otherwise sabotaged.” Moore also cites the case documented in Zev Asher’s notorious 2004 film Casuistry: the Art of Killing a Cat, in which a group of Toronto students tortured and ultimately killed a cat in the name of art, as a “dubious—make that despicable—’artistic’ experiment” that inspired him to explore the theme of human cruelty toward animals.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the novel is the sheer ubiquity of the inhumane treatment meted out. Moore recounts another story from his personal experience. “[T]he mistreatment of the golden retriever in The Extinction Club…may be related to something I observed nearby,” he says. “A local resident used to keep a dog chained up in a small dog house all year round, never letting it out and never walking it. It was the saddest thing. So I left a threatening note, of the thuggish variety, in the owner’s mailbox. The next day, and the days thereafter, I noticed that the dog was free to roam, off his chain and out of his jail.”
The violence against animals in the novel is graphic and deeply shocking, but Moore argues that it is not gratuitous. “I should point out that the violence is a small part of the novel, usually recounted with a certain distance, outside the main action,” he says, and notes that many hunting shows and “kill” videos depict—and, indeed, celebrate—extremely gruesome levels of real-life violence. “I once saw two women hunters [in a ‘kill video’] holding up a lynx they shot, laughing their heads off, explaining that they wanted to make a rug out of it. And two male hunters in the States, while indiscriminately slaughtering flocks of birds, screaming, ‘Not a good day to be a dove!’ A dove.” But Moore maintains that he has taken care to depict the level of human viciousness realistically. “The challenge, I suppose, was not to invent anything simply for shock value. I was careful to base everything on actual practices in the wild, which we tend to ignore for some reason.”
In the novel’s acknowledgments, Moore says that he would like to thank the fictional Quebec Wildlife Detective Agency—and he is hopeful that one day the agency will exist outside of the novel. “The poaching laws in Quebec, quite simply, aren’t enforced,” he says. “There aren’t enough officers working in the field, nor is there a real desire on the part of the Ministry of Wildlife to anger or harass hunters, since they’re the source of so much revenue. From tourists, outfitters, guides, licence fees, and so on. And there’s corruption and collusion, of course, as there is in a lot of government ministries.”
Also thanked in the acknowledgments is Céleste, the novel’s incredibly precocious, orphaned, and home-schooled heroine and co-narrator. Creating such a character obviously presents very specific challenges to an author. “The hardest thing for most writers is to create a believable first-person character of the opposite sex,” says Moore. “The problem was compounded in this case by the fact that she—Céleste—is a teenager, an alien breed for me. Not only for me, but for most parents. So I tried to make Céleste a bit of an oddball, who doesn’t talk the way other girls her age talk, who hasn’t been moulded by television or the Internet, by hypersexualized advertising, and so on.”
Céleste’s co-narrator, Nile Nightingale—a mysterious American who claims to be from Neptune—has a history of drug and alcohol abuse; his narration is filtered through the fact that, like many of the characters in Moore’s previous novels, his perception of reality is not always dependable. “I’m fascinated by unreliable narrators in fiction because most of us are unreliable narrators in real life,” says Moore. “With every story that’s told to you, you have to filter out the subjective elements, the clouding emotions, the self-serving elements, the embellishments, rhetorical flourishes, and so on. Once a reader realizes that the narrator in a novel is unreliable, then as an author you’ve entered the realm of dramatic irony. A nice place to be.”
Throughout Moore’s work, the irony is also frequently dark; his juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic or horrific is very distinctive. “Dark comedies can be marvellously complex and poignant—and poignancy within comedy can make a potent brew,” he explains. “Comedy becomes sharper, I think, when juxtaposed with tragedy, and tragedy becomes unbearable when comedy precedes it. As in certain novels by Saul Bellow or Charles Portis, or in Four Weddings and a Funeral, when romantic farce and buffoonery precede that tearful eulogy, with those agonizingly beautiful lines from Auden.”
Moore’s next novel, however, will involve a complete change of topic: he’s planning to explore the themes of coincidence, recollection, and romance through the game of tennis. He has been granted a flat in London for six months by the Quebec Arts Council in order to research the old tennis courts of England and France. “[The novel] was sparked by a cluster of things, or coincidences, including a re-reading of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and coming across the line ‘We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and bandied /Which way may please them.’” he says. “People, in other words, as randomly struck tennis balls.”