All the Waste in the World: On Pip Adam’s “The New Animals”
By James PasleyNovember 5, 2023
The New Animals by Pip Adam
The New Animals was first published in 2017. The following year, it won the Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction, New Zealand’s biggest book prize, its answer to the National Book Award. Prior to winning, reviews were scarce, and when the book was reviewed, the coverage was fairly negative. It got to the point where novelist Carl Shuker wrote an essay telling the country’s reviewers to open their eyes and realize that a master was at work. He asked, “What the fuck are we doing in this country when we are not reviewing and talking about this book?” New Zealand’s literary community is a fairly small pond, and it’s not often that shots are fired so eagerly, so readily, into the crowd. But Shuker was right: Adam is undoubtedly one of the country’s best writers.
Adam has also written a short story collection, Everything We Hoped For (2010), and three other novels: I’m Working on a Building (2013), my personal favorite Nothing to See (2020), and Audition (2023), which came out earlier this year, and whose reviews are already overwhelmingly positive. She wrote one of the best local short stories in recent history, “The Kiss.” I can still remember the first time I read it: it felt like a Raymond Carver or Denis Johnson story except that it took place in Christchurch, focused on local soldiers, and confused sexuality with a stolen kiss. Adam’s writing is rooted in the daily grind; most importantly, it’s often about work. She worked as a hairdresser for more than a decade, as well as a librarian, and she has taught prisoners how to write. She hosts a podcast called Better Off Read on which she interviews local writers and artists, and listening to it, you know she’s empathetic and caring. So, it can almost be disgruntling to read her fiction.
The New Animals covers a single day in Auckland in 2016. It follows three characters from an older generation—Carla and Sharona, who work in fashion, and Duey, who works a regular hairdressing job—and three young men, Tommy, Cal, and Kurt, who run a fashion label. By “run,” I mean they google images of what they think is cool and then have the Sharonas and Carlas of the world make it happen. The premise of the first two thirds of the book is that Tommy—almost needlessly—wants to rush a photo shoot for the next morning. No one wants to do it, and the clothing samples they need to photograph are in Indonesia, but everyone still does their best to make it happen.
Throughout the story, there is a clear divide between the generations. The older characters—whom we mostly learn about through Carla—are broke, tired, worn out, their bodies changing, morphing, aching in new places, while the younger generation, whom we mostly learn about through Tommy, are basically rich kids with time and options on their hands. They get to exercise to get stronger. Tommy’s dad is his investor, and Tommy’s granddad was his dad’s investor, yet Tommy believes those generations of wealth mean nothing, that he’s fighting the good fight, pushing against the old guard. Adam constantly uses the generational divide to examine social class. The two generations see everything differently. Even the way they feel, how they care about the world, is in conflict. While the older generation came of age in the 1990s, when “any kind of caring was frowned on,” the new generation cares “too much. They care crazily about things that no one gives a fuck about—or should. That was why they ran the world.”
The differences come back to money. Carla doesn’t have enough. Duey, who has a regular job with regular wages, is better off, but even her existence is precarious. She knows she can’t slip up or she could lose “[h]er tiny apartment, her car that drove, her safety.” Sometimes the contrast is blatant: while Carla rushes back and forth across the city trying to get her work done for the shoot so she can get paid, Tommy is chauffeured around by his father. He gets to sit back, look out the window, and take it all in. He has time and money. If there is a weak point in the book, it is that his inner world, or lack thereof, seems sometimes a little much. He is self-preoccupied, almost deluded. At one point, he considers himself an enfant terrible; at another, he thinks he sounds like a James Bond villain. But maybe the ridiculousness is the point.
Much of the first section takes place in the label’s offices. We follow the characters around in close third person while they talk and work. As the narrative jumps among them, it often feels like a video game—panning, looking for the next target to shoot and destroy. It seems purposeful. The book is mired in violence (the judges of the Acorn Prize called it the book “with the most blood on the page”), and yet, at least in this section, there are few violent acts. There’s a female pit bull named Doug that Carla reluctantly adopted after a photo shoot, and the dog now wants to kill her. There’s an argument between Sharona and Cal about the shoot. Through Duey we see Sharona shouting and poking him in the chest, although it’s not actually clear what she’s shouting about. Duey can’t make it out. But everyone hears Cal when he asks Sharona if she’s finished. A moment later, the whole room realizes he’s won the argument. They realize that Sharona, who has never snapped before, is wasting her time, that her outburst is all for nothing. Much of the novel is like this—grudging, inward, repressed. We know the characters’ thoughts but rarely see them come to anything useful.
The New Animals is not a light read. It’s not even always a pleasurable one. The sentences are short, simple, and blunt, made for hammering. Adam isn’t didactic—far from it—but she’s not pulling punches either. She has points to make, hypocrisies to point out—fat-hating, waste, social media addiction. About leather, she writes:
It felt like sliding into something else’s skin, because it was. It smelt so bad to her. She hated touching it. […] She imagined them still full of organs, blood, sinew, life. When she saw it she imagined it coming off. A knife in between fat and skin, and then the pull. It was the pull that did it. The weight the puller had to put behind their work. It didn’t slide off, it resisted, like anything alive would pull back.
Everyone is held accountable. Wellington-based editor Justine Jungersen-Smith, who recently wrote a brief history of Adam’s work, said it better than I could: “What each of Adam’s books reveal about their author is a sensibility acutely attuned to our ability to look away, to commit to the game so successfully that to draw attention to the seams feels like cutting through the fabric of the world with a knife.” The book makes for uncomfortable reading because Adam refuses to look away, because she forces the reader to face up to the state of things.
Throughout the first two thirds of the novel, the scenes with Doug the pit bull stayed with me the most. When Carla is feeding Doug, Adam writes about how the meat has been pumped full of male hormones:
Every time Carla fed Doug, she knew she was giving her more male. The dog huffed down the testosterone, the adrenaline that was locked into the animal’s body as it died, all tight inside Doug, and it ran the race of her as she sat all day waiting, plotting, trying to dig her way out of the flat.
Carla believes Doug is going to kill her, but it’s Doug who leads the reader into the final section. It’s difficult to write about this part of the story without ruining everything, so if you haven’t read the book, I’d suggest stopping here.
What happens is that Elodie, a makeup artist who is a peripheral character for most of the book, uses Doug to guide her to another place. Carla, the photo shoot, and Auckland are abandoned. Solid ground is abandoned. The narrative homes in on Elodie as she swims out to sea. The whole narrative shifts. One reviewer noted that the switch is “actually well-signposted,” and to a degree, it is. On a second reading, you are rewarded with all the watery hints of what’s to come, but the first time through, the shift can be shocking. The narrative is suddenly all about Elodie swimming towards a trash island (“an island of rubbish […] All the waste in the world”) that she is not sure exists. It’s an island Carla told her about after they had sex, an island that Carla apparently disappeared to years earlier before coming back. Elodie’s plan is to start a new life. Unlike Carla, she is never going to come back. She wants to be the first person there, to colonize the new land, to become “prime minister, developer, real estate agent.”
Adam has said that, while some reviewers described this section as magical realism, it is “hard science fiction.” What happens to Elodie as she remains in the water—as her eyes and ears adapt, as she eats tiny fragments of dirt and her skin breaks down—is based on thorough research. Elodie’s swim isn’t an easy one. She encounters corpses, whales, a shark, and an octopus. But there’s another difficulty to this section—keeping the narrative moving. Adam noted her difficulty in writing it, how typically she relies on her characters to talk, but here Elodie is all alone. Yet I actually found this section the most compelling. It is unexpected and surreal and feels entirely new.
In the acknowledgments at the end of the novel, Adam points to several books that helped her write this one. One of them is beloved New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s Intensive Care (1970); another is a book about the structure of Frame’s writing. Adam has elsewhere spoken about the importance of Intensive Care, which is also divided into two sections, the first half being a work of social realism, the second science fiction. Adam said she was interested in how these parts spoke to each other, how what could be said through science fiction couldn’t be said in social realism. One key aspect of this difference is surely the depiction of the body. A few years ago, in the Turbine | Kapohau interview, Adam said that she has basically been writing one long book, that each of her published works has been a “corrective of the last,” and each time she’s been struggling with the ideas of “bodies in revolt, of finding a place for a body that isn’t seen as conventional.”
You can see this theme throughout The New Animals, especially as Carla grudgingly comes to terms with her changing body, but it is taken to an extreme with Elodie and her swim. As she acclimates to life in the ocean, she considers what body parts she will need going forward. She realizes that her eyes, which have been her most important tool for work, are no longer useful. She decides that her toes are probably superfluous too: “If she got very hungry she could eat one of her fingers. She didn’t need all of them. Or her toes. They were useless. A flat foot would be better for kicking. There would be more power in a foot without toes.” Later, almost reluctantly, as she considers donning a wetsuit to keep her skin from dissolving in the saltwater, she lists which body parts she really needs:
[S]he needed her legs and her arms and her hands and the trunk, where all of her organs nested. She needed her head, it held her mouth and her ears and her nose. The brain she needed sat underneath the other brain in her head. She needed the skin on her head and the skin on her hands.
Elodie’s swim becomes, in part, about throwing things off, about cutting away anything unnecessary for her new world.
When I think of this book—and, to be honest, all of Adam’s work—I think of the phenomenon of “tough love.” The state of the world sits heavily on her pages, and she’s entirely unsentimental as she interrogates it. In the interview where she said this book was a corrective of her previous books, she also said that each book felt like a failure. I disagree. The New Animals might not be an easy read, but it is an important one. Adam is writing about structures and systems—the environment, social class—that are in a bad state. She doesn’t offer an easy way out, or really any way out, unless you count moving to a trash island to start a new life. Instead, she makes you think about it all, makes you look at it unflinchingly. She holds your chin tight and forces you to watch the fires burning.
James Pasley is a writer from Auckland, New Zealand, living in New York. His short stories have been published in Landfall, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times, among others.
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