by kayla rae whitaker
random house, 284 pages, $27
It may be gauche to say that novels should be moral tales; but nothing can compete with morality for dramatic tension and structure. Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel, The Animators, is a raw and propulsive book . . . right up until its fizzly, self-satisfied ending.
The Animators centers on the friendship of two hot-mess women. Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses meet in art school. Mel walks around in a swirling Pigpen cloud of sleaze and chaos; Sharon’s preferred defense mechanism is tight-lipped competence. They’re promiscuous, disastrous, hungry, and driven by fear of those hungers. Women who do life like it’s a tray full of Jell-O shots: It doesn’t matter if what you’re gulping is good, as long as it takes you out of yourself for a night. Their need for each other is visceral. Toward the book’s end, Sharon realizes, “From age eighteen on, I had a partner, a kindred spirit. I had a friend.” Four short words in which an entire life is sheltered.
What they hunger for most is their work, the indie cartoons they craft in furious all-nighters hunched over their tandem drawing boards. They don’t need the work’s success, although they get it. What they need is the work itself: the self-forgetting found in intense physical and mental labor.
Their work is heavily autobiographical—they’re twentysomething women, of course they do memoirs. From early on we sense that their self-exposure will have consequences for others. At first we only get that perspective from unsympathetic outsiders: A guy at Salon (of course it’s a guy at Salon) speculates that Mel’s autobiographical cartoon may have caused her mother’s death. It’s hard to see Salon Guy as anything other than a remora. But slowly The Animators pushes readers to ask, “Are these movies which Mel and Sharon treat as physical necessities really a good idea? Is it right to make them? Or do Mel and Sharon work together the way they drink together, seemingly intimate but actually skidding side-by-side into separate addictive inner worlds?”
Mel and Sharon clutch their right to tell these stories so tightly because the events they depict shaped and distorted their lives. But the possibility that you don’t have a right to your coping mechanisms never occurs to them. I walked away from this book thinking, You know, maybe art doesn’t matter that much in the greater scheme of things.
Whitaker’s descriptive prose is generally either acceptable or overwrought. But she’s got a sharp ear for dialogue. She writes painfully realistic fights, bad fights where hurting people lash out and then the people they’ve just hurt lash right back at them. Sharon replies to apologies with stuff like, “Am I supposed to thank you?” Sharon and her mom fight like two cats in a bag.
They’re both right in their harshest judgments of each other. Sharon really does think she’s better than her family; her family really does ostracize and suspect her. This collage of resentment and mistrust is part of the novel’s portrayal of place. It’s a novel about the rural South. Mel and Sharon are both New York transplants, Mel from the Florida swamplands and jailhouses, Sharon from the hard-bitten middle class of Appalachia. The Animators neither romanticizes these places nor disparages them. This isn’t, thank God, another book about what it means to grow up in the white rural South. It’s a book about what it’s like to grow up there. In The Animators you’ll find all the reasons young smart people race to leave battered places—and the moments of gentleness and beauty they find when they warily return home.
And Whitaker can plot. She’s got a gift for the sudden catastrophe. Mel and Sharon suffer extraordinary losses over the course of this novel. Their unanticipated losses drive them together (the first time Sharon realizes, “People are going to think we’re a couple,” is when one of them is serving as the other’s caretaker), whereas their successes drive them apart.
The novel’s catastrophes expose what Whitaker’s characters have prepared themselves for—and where they’re utterly unprepared. Sharon and Mel turn out to have prepared themselves to care for and serve one another. What they are not prepared for, and never seek to prepare themselves for, is serving anyone else. They dismiss anyone who might get in the way of their work; but then, they also don’t care about anyone their work might serve. We get none of the usual comforting justifications of memoirists, about how our self-exposure helps other people grapple with their own hard pasts. Mel and Sharon just don’t care about that.
Toward the book’s end, Sharon articulates what has always been her worldview: I’ve suffered, and therefore, as she screams at her mother, “I get to act how I want.” I’d believe Whitaker knows how self-absorbed this is. She was able, after all, to write Sharon diagnosing her mom’s character defects with crystalline accuracy (“She’s in pissed mode, what she resorts to when she’s wrong and she knows it”) without noticing herself doing the exact same thing at that very moment. Sharon is stunted—she has a teenage taste for crude humor, as if vulgarity alone makes jokes funny, and a teenage taste for self-pity. Even that name, “Sharon Kisses,” signals that Sharon is a caricature, a cavorting monster.
The thing about self-absorption is that it’s eventually very tiring. Usually in novels this exhaustion prompts repentance. But in real life people often don’t bother repenting. And so Sharon settles down. She stops doing the kind of work she was known for. She stops cramming men into her maw like pints of Ben & Jerry’s. She tries “to savor the smaller dependables: getting in out of the cold into our warm, safe apartment . . . . Cooking a particularly complex soup. I try to appreciate the feeling of neutrality: a quiet, grateful life.” This final section of the novel lacks anything remotely resembling urgency.
That may be the point. A quiet life and a dulled conscience aren’t fascinating in real life, either. But where’s the line between writing a novel about how slack and frustrating a self-satisfied life is, and writing a slack and frustrating novel?
The Animators seems to be asking, in a twist on that guidance-counselor staple, whether the overexamined life is worth living. But the novel’s long coda prompts a different question: whether the unrepented life is worth reading.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.