RIC Professor's Quirky New Novel, “Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig”
Speculation about the intelligence of animals has captivated the human imagination from antiquity. Now comes a novel by Russell Potter, RIC associate professor of English, called Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig who has a remarkable command of the English language (he can’t speak but he can spell out his thoughts on cards). As unusual as this sounds, it isn’t unheard of. Learned pigs have performed in London fairs as early as the 1780s.
Potter’s research on the English language (he teaches courses at RIC on the history of the English language and modern grammar), and his fascination with 18th-century Britain and circus sideshows have all come together in this debut novel.
Potter said, “My wife, Karen Carr, who is a part-time English instructor at RIC, was about to teach from Pygmalion. We started talking about Shaw’s work, and the germ of my novel was formed.”
Potter describes Pyg as “a great parable about language and identity. To enter into language is to enter into society, but it puts Toby in a difficult position. He’s exiled from nonhuman society and he’s seen as a freak or an oddity in human society. You give people the gift of literacy but it isn’t a complete gift because it doesn’t come with understanding, with treating them as equals.”
There are many layers to Pyg, Potter said. “If someone reads my novel as a fantastical narrative, I would be happy with that, and if they were to make the allegorical connections, that would be fine, too. Unlike my courses, this book is not a college lecture, but simply fun to read.”
Indeed Pyg has been described as a “magical rendering” by the Washington Post and “deeply funny” and “brilliantly satirical” by PhiloBiblos. Critics have also remarked on the novel’s brilliant 18th-century writing style. Pyg was informed by documents Potter had read while in the employ of a company that photographed 18th-century printed material onto microfilm.
There, he read tens of thousands of 18th-century material, including funeral tickets, bills of parliament and gallows confessions of prisoners who were about to be executed. “It was like living in the 18th century,” he said. Readers of Pyg are equally immersed in the period.
In addition to UK and U.S. editions, Pyg has been printed in Sweden, Italy and Turkey and is available as an audio book. Potter will be presenting a reading of Pyg at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Ct. on September 27, at 12 noon.