Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Most of Holst’s stories are brief; they are written in a deceptively simple style, and many have been performed by the writer in Greenwich Village coffeehouses. As a typical Holstian celebration of the essence of storytelling, it is appropriate that “The Language of Cats” begins, “Once upon a time there was a gentleman.” Like such self-conscious postmodernists as John Barth and Donald Barthelme, Holst’s primary concern is the nature of narrative and language.

The simple style is appropriate for Holst’s moral fables, but his stories are hardly didactic. Far from attempting to preach on the dangers inherent in scientific experimentation, Holst, in “The Language of Cats,” merely pokes fun at intellectual hubris. The short sentences and paragraphs draw the reader easily into a seemingly placid universe in which the unexpected packs an extra punch:

Then he quit his government job and began to study in earnest the thousands of shrieks and caterwauls he had recorded, and after a while the sounds began to make sense.Then he began to practice, mimicking his records until he mastered the basic vocabulary of the language.Toward the end he practiced purring.He had never experimented on his own cat. He wanted to surprise it.

Holst even calls attention to his awareness of the reader’s awareness of his style by dropping a 398-word sentence into the middle of his story. This atypical sentence, which digresses into description for its own sake, ends, “imagine how the world would appear to a person after finishing such a ridiculously lengthy, pointless sentence.” Holst makes clear that he, as creator, is manipulating this digression by including three times the first-person pronoun that appears nowhere else in the narrative. Like the Siamese, he creates and plays for the sheer joy of the experience while observing, through the lying cat’s death, the possibility of the story consuming the storyteller, ending the story with the Siamese’s vision of a race of supercats degenerating into impotent meows.