The thrills of genre-literacy, David Larsen

The New Animals
Pip Adam
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776561162

Pip Adam’s second novel is bewildering. I say this as praise, though also as fair warning.

On page one we meet Carla, who has stopped on her way somewhere to buy a cup of tea. She is not enjoying the experience:

The whole of St Kevin’s Arcade was awful now … it was clean and the café down the end of the arcade served ricotta doughnuts to men in suits and she couldn’t stand it. She’d lived in Auckland for 43 years and it still wasn’t finished. Nothing stayed in place.

What exactly is Carla feeling here? A desire for stability? A dislike of ricotta or of men in suits? A general discontent, latching onto whatever provocations the immediate environment has to offer? One of the interesting things about Adam’s writing, which places us inside the points of a view of a rotating succession of characters, is that questions like this do not become easier to answer as you read more. Over the next few pages, we discover that Carla is on her way to a meeting with “Tommy and Cal and Kurt”, who run a clothing label, and who seem to exasperate her; we discover that she’s a hairdresser; we discover that she maintains what she considers to be an immaculate social exterior – “She could feel when her face was right” – which conceals a turbulent inner life. Facts accumulate around her. Her relationship to these facts is constantly shifting. Nothing stays in place.

Soon the point of view moves to Sharona, who seems to sew clothes for the same label Carla is involved with, and to be a friend of hers; then back to Carla; then to Tommy, the label owner, whose wealth-fuelled self-assurance is so notably at variance with his apparent levels of insight and competence that he seems an almost Trumpian figure; then back to Carla. By page 30, we have also seen through the eyes of Duey, another hairdresser, who seems to be Carla’s closest friend. Tommy has precipitated a crisis by arbitrarily moving up a photo shoot for the label’s new collection; the clothes for the shoot have not yet arrived from Indonesia, and the models will now need hair and make-up work in an unfeasibly short space of time.

So we have what seems to be the makings of a plot, and we have a core cast of characters, and we have a strong supposition that the very core of this cast is Carla, because her perceptions are where we began, and they keep being the ones we come back to. But there is a reason I am leaning heavily on the word “seems”. It isn’t just that Adam’s narration stays tightly at the level of her characters’ subjectivity, where certainties are often less reliable than uncertainties. Her choice of which characters to focus on in which moments gives certain perceptions more weight than others, and what this means for the evolving shape of the story, and to what extent it may be deliberately misleading, is something we have to tease out as we go.

Form is always a matter of authorial fiat in fiction: none of the conventions writers generally adhere to are natural laws, and every time we read a novel we are picking up structural cues and building assumption-based constructs in our minds as we go. One of the great pleasures of The New Animals is the way Adam forces this process out of the background and requires you to stay aware of it, and yet still wrong-foots you repeatedly about where the book is going and how it will get there. My reading notes feature a rising crescendo of complaints about one oft-referenced event in Carla’s past and one major feature of her present: the further I got into the book, the more I suspected Adam did not know what she was doing with either of these elements. Until, that is, the two of them came together with a third element I had hardly bothered to note, and it became clear that there was a very deliberate plan in place for all of them.

To the world’s population of spoiler-sceptics, who like to argue that knowing a book’s secrets in advance does not diminish the pleasures it can offer the properly discriminating reader, I have this to say: you confound me. And for anyone who agrees that the capacity to surprise at the level of structure and plot is a key tool for a properly discriminating novelist, I have this warning: unless you have already read The New Animals, which on the whole I do recommend doing, you had better stop reading this review shortly.

Some last general comments. This is neither a happy story nor an easy one to fathom, but Adam’s writing is sure and strong: she builds short, punchy sentences into portraits of complex fracture-riven minds, and she lets these portraits shimmer in real time, so that your sense of who a person is shifts constantly as you read. The practicalities of making clothes, and – especially – of hairdressing are important to the characters and become crucial to the story, and Adam is exemplary at quietly understated technical exposition. She knows everything these characters would know, and she also knows better than to make a big deal of it.

Spoilers now. The two gathering clouds over my experience of the book’s first two thirds –­ the portion during which it seemed Adam was wholly focused on Carla’s various business and personal relationships – were the constant references to Carla’s time overseas, and her perverse attitude to Doug the Dog. Again and again, characters refer to Carla’s time away, and how it changed her, and how things changed without her; but we never hear where she went, or why, or why she came back, or
when, or … the list of missing details
is long, and keeps lengthening. It
becomes a palpable hole in the narrative, and for no clear reason.

Meanwhile, we see enough of Doug, the rescued pit bull who lurks in Carla’s flat, and is in the process of demolishing it, and who Carla believes will one day kill her, to conclude that Carla is not merely insane, but literary-insane: Doug does not seem to make sense as anything other than an externalised death wish, squatting at the heart of a book otherwise free of such symbolic flourishes.

But then. Oh, but then. Late in the book, Adam shifts away from her four established viewpoint characters to give us our first access to the thoughts of Elodie, the sweet-tempered, enigmatic make-up artist who has been moving unobtrusively in and out of the story since page three. Elodie kidnaps the lethal dog, in the belief it will lead her to something Carla discovered during her time away. After a while, you begin to notice that Carla and Tommy and the others are no longer in the story, although nothing resembling a formal resolution of their storylines appears to have occurred. Surely the entire final third of the book will not be a separate novella about Elodie’s adventures with Doug? Is Adam that bold?

She is that bold and bolder, because what happens in this section throws all pretensions of realism off a cliff: you are now in the grip of something meta-fictional … or something post-modern … or something seriously genre-literate. And, because all of these are possible, all of them are happening. The reading experience is thrillingly unstable, immune to prediction and tricky to assess.

When the pleasures of a book turn on deep uncertainty – not merely as to why characters act the way they do, or how the story might be about to twist, but as to what on God’s green earth the writer is up to – one’s delight in the book risks becoming dependent on ignorance. The experience of reading becomes the experience of decoding, a pleasure which is potentially exhaustible. But Adam, in abandoning her seeming-central character and taking Elodie off on her strange journey, has done something sufficiently resonant that this book does not collapse in on itself once you know its secrets. What happens, instead, is that one’s memory of working through its pages sits at odds with one’s post facto understanding of it. Thinking about the book therefore becomes a process of reconciling incompatible selves. Mild existential crisis turns out to be an entirely appropriate state out of which to contemplate The New Animals.

David Larsen is a Wellington-based writer.

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