William Kotzwinkle is probably best known as the writer of the novelization of ET (and a sequel set after ET got home). I actually know his work from a novel I read over a decade ago, The Bear Who Came Over the Mountain, about a bear who stumbles upon a manuscript, manages to get it published and becomes a literary celebrity. I remember it as a genuinely hilarious book.
Doctor Rat is not as funny, though it gets a lot of recognition as a comic novel. It’s primarily about animal rights and a rather emotional argument for an end to experimentation on animals. The novel switches back and forth between two contemporaneous storylines. On one hand, we have the story of Dr Rat, a lab rat who has been thoroughly tortured by a team of scientists and has developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite his own pain, he identifies with the scientists and argues angrily against their critics among the other lab animals. The parallel narrative is a bit more obscure at first. It starts with a dog on a walk who begins to hear rumblings from dog community, and then begins to move to different animals, all of whom seem to be onto some big occurrence. We get whales singing to each other, and finally a host of African animals (with special attention paid to elephants). It eventually becomes apparent that the animals are fed up with humanity’s callous attitude towards them and are gathering for a council to protest. This spontaneous animal protest also reaches into Dr Rat’s lab, and he must navigate a massive riot that breaks out among the animals there.
There are some nice passages and a few funny moments with Dr Rat, but I can’t say I was enthralled by the novel, nor was I really swayed by Kotzwinkle’s arguments. It's not that I’m a fan of animal cruelty, but I’d prefer to see the topic of experimentation on animals explored with a bit more nuance. Kotzwinkle presents the scientists as evil sadists who torture the animals for fun. I’m not sure what labs were like in the ‘70s, but I know that more thought is put into the ethics of the situation today. I think most people would see a clear difference between cancer research and cosmetic testing, for instance. I also think the extent to which Kotzwinkle anthropomorphizes the animals is a cheat and a shallow over-simplification. He tries to add species-specific touches, but we mostly get human-style narrations.
Generally, I’m not interested in reading a polemic as a novel, even when I might largely agree with the message, and Kotzwinkle certainly doesn’t avoid the pitfalls of such an issue-oriented work here. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the novel really wasn’t engaging or entertaining. At least it was short.