Gregory Feeley reviewed Zuntig in the Washington Post Book World for Sunday, February 3, 2002.
Tom La Farge's Zuntig (Green Integer; paperback, $13.95) is, like his two-volume novel The Crimson Bears, a tale of "Talking Animals" -- a designation specific enough to have its own entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy but sufficiently open to mislead, at least if you think it connotes whimsy in Edwardian nurseries. The animals of La Farge's humanless world communicate within and across species, but their discourse is the anxious and urgent interaction of adults mediating between the skin of the self, the constellation of community, and the void.
Zuntig, a swamp ape whose intelligence and initiative have led her to covet the leadership of her matriarchal society, sets about winning the approval of the tribe's Dispenser, who has no daughter and so must name a successor. Zuntig's resourceful negotiation of the particulars of her taboo-filled world -- its games, avenues of power and complicated belief system -- occupies the first third of the book, which is inventive, mysterious and suspenseful in a manner familiar to well-done fantasy novels. These are the pleasures of discovering a world and comprehending its true nature, and they sustain us to the point at which Zuntig wins her prize and loses it.
Devastated and expecting to perish, Zuntig unexpectedly changes form and escapes her straitened circumstances (she has been tied up with the skeleton of the Dispenser's infant daughter and thrown into the ocean) and is abruptly free in a large and unfamiliar world. From here on La Farge's novel becomes increasingly fluid and surprising, its inventiveness less bound to conventional narrative form. Zuntig changes shape repeatedly, seeking a stable life far from the swamp, but finds her efforts undermined by an unsettling discovery: The soul of the murdered infant is incorporated into her every incarnation, and some portion -- a bone, an organ -- of her new body wants to return her to the swamp and the victim's own unfinished business.
After enough transformations, La Farge's very prose begins to change, and Zuntig's season among a colony of lemmings is told in the style of the premier novelist of courtship -- " 'I lay it down as a rule, quite as a rule, Miss Zuntig,' intoned Mr. Arthur Lemming, an affected youth (but perhaps, she thought, his airs were to compensate for his person, which was stunted and nondescript), 'that any lemming's character may be safeliest read from the tunnel he cuts" -- while a succession of unhappy transformations is described in a Norton's anthology of verse pastiche ("Now her only solace is/ Constant metamorphosis/ All one tale, since she was ape:/ Fouls her nest and shifts her shape," which the Coleridgean marginalia glosses as "Retrospection is Misery").
Zuntig's adventures swerve and sublime, offering the reader such a wealth of potential meaning that we may wonder how to parse it. (It is certainly possible, for example, to read the novel as beginning in a structuralist world, composed of rules and systems such as Lévi-Strauss would relish, which evolves into a successively poststructuralist landscape, contingent and uncentered, its heroine a floating signifier in a field of endless play.) Unflaggingly witty and surprising, Zuntig reinvents itself with every chapter, and readers who do not actually demand that fantasy novels be reassuringly secondhand should take steps to secure a copy.