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The Standing Upright, the Wearing Clothes, the Work
Surfaces in Pip Adam’s The New Animals
By Ali Banach
Pip Adam’s The New Animals is a novel about surfaces. It is a rigorous and experimental examination of appearance, layers, clothing, bodies, haircuts, and water. It is about what is visible and what lays underneath.
SURFACE I: Veronica
Sometimes a surface is a mirror. Some books cannot help but reflect and refract the books that have come before them, books that treat the same concerns in different ways.
Reading the first two thirds of The New Animals, I was reminded repeatedly of Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica. Adam explores the changing fashion scene in Auckland, New Zealand while Gaitskill takes on the modeling worlds of New York and Paris. Both novels center bodies that are glamorous and bodies that are in decline. The narratives follow workplace relationships between young and older people. In Gaitskill’s Veronica, the young model, Alison, befriends the older Veronica at her temp job; the two women tell each other stories about the violence and dullness and glamour of the fashion industry and their lives. Veronica eventually dies alone of AIDS, and Alison narrates the story retrospectively from her old age where she suffers from Hepatitis C. The retrospective and the first person allow Gaitskill to speak about decaying bodies, about surfaces past that were once beautiful and flourishing and are now dead or dying.
The reflection does not line up perfectly. Despite an alignment in central concerns, Adam’s approach to these topics is more experimental in its eschewing of realism and narrative expectations. She does not use the retrospective. She does not use the first person. I struggled at first to get my bearings in the narrative—Adam employs the free indirect third, floating from character to character with no formal indication. The characters’ minds are dipped into episodically as they move through time, always moving forward.
SURFACE II: Third person
The third person here also functions as a type of surface. The third person and its roving nature flood the narrative with character names. The repetition of names—Carla, Duey, Sharona, Tommy—serves as a reminder that a name is an insufficient container for the notion of a self. The third person is difficult here. It is slippery, always moving. Adam’s use of the roaming close third points to language as an insufficient surface for the stuff of life.
This should make this a difficult, or impossible, read. But I moved quickly, swimmingly, through the first two thirds of the novel. Adam is funny, and this is a sort of narrative gift. The second line of the book is “The barista was ‘a big tea drinker.’” Adam turns this discerning eye and gift for dark humor on the shifting nature of Auckland’s creative industries in the twenty-first century.
The close third shifts between four primary characters. Carla, Sharona, and Duey represent the old guard; they are middle-aged, having survived the nineties in fashion. Now, they must answer to the trust-fund millennials buying their way into the industry. There’s a dry humor in Adam’s spare prose that carries this roaming narration, even when she inhabits a person she critiques. On Tommy, the fashion label’s erratic and juvenile leader, she writes, “He looked at himself in the wing mirror. He was more complex than he looked.”
The close third is sustained by the simplicity of the early plot. Adam erects a somewhat simple problem that propels the reader through the story. The timeline is tight. Not even two days in 2016, Tommy decides to shoot the collection the following day. The clothes haven’t arrived, hair hasn’t been cut, and the styling has not been decided. The doomed nature of the shoot creates tremendous tension. The stress of an impossible task exacerbates all of the tensions that Adam examines: social class, generational divide, taste.
SURFACE III: Clothes
For a book purportedly about the fashion industry, there is little mention of articles of clothing in The New Animals. Clothes are a surface, a way of coating our skin. They add a protective layer, a layer suggestive of identity.
I only clocked two clothing items described in great detail. One: a coat that Carla wears. Adam writes, “It was a woolen Peppertree swing coat. It had large, round shoulder pads and a petal collar. It had been her aunt’s and then her aunt had died of cancer everywhere, and Carla was given it.” Here, the surface is granted an object, a texture, and sartorial details, but Adam returns to the things underneath, the “cancer everywhere,” just as Gaitskill always returned to the sick body. This is an item of personal significance, a surface with a history.
The second item is a white t-shirt made by the central fashion label. This shirt is a site for debate between the younger and older employees at the company. One of the older employees, Sharona, who is responsible for the physical creation of all of the younger boss’s half-baked ideas, loves the shirt. Adam describes, “The sleeves were a fucking revelation and the yoke fell over the shoulder at an angle that she thought was pretty good. She loved the play, the risk of having a t-shirt in the corporate line, she thought it made a statement about who Tommy thought they were.” Here, Sharona believes in the material thing, the work that she did to make it, and about the “statement” the object makes. However, no one else can see the fucking revelation of this surface. Holding the t-shirt over her face leaves Sharona free to dive beneath her own surface, to the dark place inside of her on the brink of quitting. The shirt becomes the surface for conflict while also functioning as a wall for Sharona to hide behind.
Adam uses the coat and the shirt to explore beliefs about beauty, family, and the body. Tension plays out on these filaments that coat our selves.
SURFACE IV: Cover
It’s impossible to talk about this book without speaking about the ending. I am struggling to know how to do this. So I am going to speak first about the cover.
The cover of this book, its literal surface, is beautiful. The front, designed by Danielle Dutton, contains an abstract image of a wave inside a white border. At the same time, I didn’t want to read a book about the ocean. When I began reading, I was relieved to find myself situated, if not in a world known to me (I have never been to Auckland), at least a familiar one. Adam’s quick sketching of the gentrification of Auckland rings true for the changing landscape of so many American cities.
I was happy to read about clothes, about disgruntled people in small apartments with uncontrollable dogs. The queer, undefinable friendship between two characters is a magnetic mystery. There is a history between them and questions that arise because of it: “They’d been friends for thirty years. Carla had gone away for ten. So really, they’d been friends for twenty years. Duey didn’t want to fuck Carla, and Carla didn’t want to fuck Duey. They were friends.” These are people and a setting I could recognize, depicted by a writer who could be funny and cutting about all of it. Carla’s “going away” is a mystery, but one I trusted would be resolved. I wanted to see the mystery of Duey and Carla’s relationship through till the end. The interior of the book didn’t match the expectations the cover set up, and I was so happy.
SURFACE V: Elodie
And then Elodie goes for a swim. Elodie is a specter throughout the book. People look at her and project onto her; she inspires imagination in the other characters. Everyone sleeps with her. Everyone imagines who else she’s sleeping with.
Elodie first appears early in the novel as a moving part in action. Entering a meeting, Carla mentions her: “She’d already called Elodie.” Elodie enters the narrative as a call already transpired, brought up at a meeting happening without her that everyone wishes she were at. Elodie appears consistently just outside the frame. She becomes a pillar of anticipation in the first meeting, someone who’s name is flitting through everyone’s mind. Carla is the first to name the power of Elodie’s absence: “She counted them off. Tommy, Cal, Kurt, the photographer, the stylist, the sucking wound of their yearning that was the absence of Elodie.” Adam creates a charged, sucking energy surrounding this off-stage character.
Each of the characters’ psyches we float through thinks about Elodie. They think about her in charged and mystical ways. Carla on Elodie: “She had so much trouble reading Elodie. When they first met, Carla had thought she was passive aggressive but then she realized she was actively agreeable. There wasn’t a cell of irony in her. She couldn’t be drawn into anything nasty.” Nobody can read Elodie. Carla gets closest by naming this difficulty, but she fails to see that Elodie’s agreeable nature is also a surface.
In some ways, Elodie becomes defined by her exterior in the eyes of the other characters. Throughout the novel, Elodie is described as “dumb nice,” “same old Elodie,” “Elodie was happy” and “always so calm.” Adam writes, “Everything she was was always on display—if you wanted to know anything about Elodie it was all there, all the time.”All of the characters are guilty of this reduction surrounding Elodie; she is surface alone. There is nothing underneath.
Elodie’s surface is calm, happy, fuckable. Carla thinks, “This was Elodie. Elodie, who was also sleeping with Tommy and Kurt, Elodie, who was soft and fey, who you could put your hand right through.” Here, Carla expands and deepens this choral definition of Elodie as a person without substance, without a hard surface or exterior. Elodie, through the others’ eyes, is defined by her lack of surface or her lack of resistance. She will smile at anyone, fuck anyone; you can see through her.
This is why the ending is a surprise. The final third of the book is only inside Elodie. The narration switches to Elodie for the first time and stays there. And Elodie decides to take a swim. Or more aptly, she gets into a physical fight with Carla’s pitbull, and the two of them enter the sea. She enters the sea with no intention of returning, in search of an island of trash she has only heard vague whispers about. The dog dies early.
Here, the largely realist narrative vaults into the surreal, detaches from land and grounding and familiarity. I resisted it. I wondered about the doomed photoshoot yet to happen, about the hair that needed to be cut. But how better to conclude a book about surfaces than by removing the air from it? By inhabiting a character as she grows fish-like, searching for a trash island? As she looks up at the sky from the depths of water?
What is a better way to interrogate surfaces than by drowning?
Elodie’s surface is broken. When the narration enters her interiority, it is nothing like everybody else thought. She thinks dark thoughts and tries to move beyond thinking: “There’s an animal in all of them that wants to survive. Elodie could feel hers. All the other things were stripping away, the standing upright, the wearing clothes, the work—her arm swung past her ear, this was the real work.” The final surface in this book is Elodie’s skin. This skin disintegrates in the ocean as she returns to the animal she always was, or to the new animal she could become.
The New Animals was published on October 03, 2023 in the U.S. by Dorothy, a publishing project. It was published in 2017 in New Zealand by Te Herenga Waka University Press.