The Author Lindsay Stern To paraphrase Tolstoy in the opening line of Anna Karenina, unhappy families are unhappy in numerous ways. Yet, almost one century and a half after the publication of that seminal work, has fiction not excavated and minutely considered every possible unhappiness in marriage? Lindsay Stern ’13’s debut novel, The Study of Animal Languages, suggests not yet. There are still hidden deposits we can unearth. Here is a marriage falling apart as marriages often do, fueled by resentment, distrust, change and, oftentimes, petty jealousy. Rather than dwell on the cliché, Stern transforms this marriage between two professors into an illustration of the quandaries they face in trying to answer the most important question of their careers: What is knowledge?

Our narrator, Ivan Link, is a professor of philosophy at a small liberal arts college. Ivan is out to solve the Gettier Problem, an epistemological paradox named for Edmund Gettier, who formulated it in a 1963 paper. As summarized by Ivan, the problem suggests “a belief can be justified and true, but still fall short of knowledge.” Ivan has spent 10 years writing a monograph on the subject, which makes it all the more comical to watch him fail to identify situations in his own life that illustrate the Gettier Problem exactly. The result is a terrible and embarrassing disaster. Could it be that knowledge needs something more in order to be Knowledge?

Prue, his wife, is a biolinguist and rising star in academia, with five times more published work than her husband (a secret sore point for Ivan). She is up for tenure and has recently conducted a promising experiment on finches. The results have left her uncertain that we humans are really able to Know anything, especially where beings other than ourselves are concerned. For example, when we conduct experiments in which crows demonstrate an ability to overcome spatial obstacles and arrive at food, have we shown that crows are intelligent, or have we made them mimic human behavior? If the latter, how can we ever hope to overcome anthropomorphizing animals and understand what they Know as they know it?


Watch Lindsay Stern Discuss Her Debut Novel

September 18, 2019

Lindsay Stern '13 and Associate Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Adam Sitze discuss Stern's debut novel, The Study of Animal Languages.

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And then there is Frank, Prue’s father, a failed pseudo-academic who has bipolar disorder. He has come up for a visit, to attend a lecture by Prue, but during his four-day stay, Ivan and Prue worry about him skipping his pills and the unpleasant incidents that may result (of which there are many). Although he is well-read and observant, his mind is such that he often lacks the context to understand the significance of what he does Know. His mistakes hurt those around him and are sometimes downright dangerous—which is why he ends up attempting to murder a parrot. He says to Ivan that when he is off his meds, “everything … signifies.” Which raises the question: Is Knowing an ability to select what to know?

The book jacket for The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern

The Study of Animal Languages

By Lindsay Stern ’13

Viking

Even with these weighty questions, The Study of Animal Languages is not a labored read. It is the literature of the everyday, in which we enter and experience homely rooms, stride across a liberal arts campus and live through parties and gossip. We encounter characters with whom we can deeply empathize. We feel vilified with Ivan when he overhears his guests bad-mouthing him. We are desperate with Frank for others to understand the value of Prue’s work. We are mortified with Prue over the actions of her menfolk.

And Stern excels at rewarding readers with small explosions of language: “we folded ourselves into the car”; “a Labrador ... towing a woman in heels”; “The land around it is studded with young, denuded trees. Two of them walk off together suddenly, and I realize they are not trees, but a couple.” Her language repeatedly catches us unaware; we experience a flash of wonder and are left thinking, “So true; yes, true.”

With this novel, Stern proves herself a bold writer who will go on to tackle even larger themes—and in language that tantalizes.


Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story “Fanta Blackcurrant.” She lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and is at work on a fantasy novel.

Photo by Lee Stern