Pip Adam won the Acorn Prize for best novel of the year at the recent 2018 Ockham New Zealand national book awards. Is her book actually any good? Readable? Likeable? Brannavan Gnanalingam – a losing finalist – makes his assessment of her story about fashion hags and bustling millennials on K Road.
I held my breath while reading Pip Adam’s The New Animals. As a writer, it was the type of book that makes you marvel at Adam’s fearlessness. I wanted to tell everybody about it, including in print, but then when we shared an Ockham nomination, it felt a bit awkward to review it. If I had any criticisms – spoiler alert: I don’t – then I’d just come across as petty. But to be honest, if I were a judge, I’d have voted for The New Animals.
On its face, The New Animals is a clash between two generations, two classes, two competing ideas of how fashion should be created. These groups of people interact in Auckland’s cutthroat fashion scene, and inevitably clash. One of the criticisms the book has encountered is that the characters are not likeable. It’s fair to say that Adam is not a “polite” writer. However, that shouldn’t be mistaken for a writer who lacks compassion. Her characters are neither good nor bad. They simply try their best to exist.
Adam’s characters inhabit worlds they have very little control over. In part, this comes from the very nature of their jobs. Adam, throughout her short stories and novels, shows how each profession is structured by the way they use language. In I’m Working on a Building, Catherine is a structural engineer, struggling to deal with personal and professional crises. She finds engineering language, which is necessarily depersonalised for the purposes of her job, completely useless in trying to express trauma or human emotion.
In the fashion world, the participants create beautiful objects: clothes, hair, faces. Language necessarily follows that process in dehumanising the people involved – it becomes all about the object. Everything else is necessarily decontextualised.
Adam floats between the characters on a single day, almost as if she’s following them on a Steadicam. The old guard, Carla, Sharona and Duey, don’t have much to show for their ground-breaking work in the 1990s. They now struggle to be creative. It’s hard to be, when you’re jaded and living paycheck to paycheck. They’re reliant on the younger up and comers for crumbs of work. Yet the monstrous youth have their own ideas. It’s a Salieri versus Mozart clash, in which the older folk who have put in the hard yards struggle to cope with the chutzpah of those coming up behind them.
Adam is far too smart however to present this as a “shake fist at the millennials” type story. Save your smashed avocado think-pieces. The younger folk are energetic, excited, and willing to take risks. They’re also sincere. They acknowledge that they have the responsibility to “fix things”. For all of their bravado, they’re also after the validation from those who were there before them.
You get the sense that Carla, Duey, and Sharona were once that idealistic. They were also probably that monstrous once upon a time to the Boomers before them. Yet, the new breed are also rich and well-off. They’re the children of important people. They’re careless in that Gatsby kind of way. Adam’s main thrust as a result becomes an examination of class rather than generational difference. To do so, in a book about characters creating objects, the biggest object becomes Auckland itself.
It’s striking to walk around Karangahape Road nowadays. K Road’s former reputation only really now exists as a marketing tool. In the opening paragraph, Adam writes “the whole of St Kevin’s Arcade was awful now. All the new owners had done was clean it up – the walls, the tiles.” And the people who gave the gentrifiers their secondhand cool have long moved out, pushed away by the rising rents and sneered at by those wanting to enhance their investments. It’s this world that Adam shows, a city that has inexorably sought to scrub clean its past. The corners where the battlers, the discarded, and the unhelpful lived are now sold off for seven figures. In a city that is widely acknowledged as one of the more diverse in the world, it’s increasingly segregated.
It’s also a city where only the rich and the connected can now afford to make it. They can live in the trendy suburbs. They can afford to make a mistake or two. Yes, the young fashionistas are talented, but talent now requires your parents to be of a particular income bracket to get you ‘in’ in the first place. And, it’s the former creatives, the former idealists, the older generations, whose failings have led to this situation. And in Carla’s, Sharona’s and Duey’s case, some have nothing really to show for it. They were, as Tommy perceptively notes, still “kids – narcissists”. Like any good tragedy, the seeds of each character’s downfall are in their own shortcomings.
The New Animals takes a sudden turn around two thirds of the way through. There is no proper way of reviewing this book without drawing that in – so for those who don’t want any spoilers, avoid this paragraph. Loosely, Elodie, a previously peripheral character, goes for a swim. Tonally and character-wise, the shift is dramatic, but the narrative shift is actually well-signposted. The fluidity of Adam’s prose becomes literally evoked in the water. Elodie had been constructed simply as an object by the other characters. She was a victim of the role she plays in that system. Elodie tries to break free, become free of language and become free of the city. Unfortunately for Elodie, the sea is something that is both liberating and a wall. She can’t really truly escape. The decay that underpins the shininess of the new Auckland has seeped into the sea.
The New Animals is a dark book. But far from being unlikeable, its characters are thrillingly and heartbreakingly alive. The book is a cry for human emotion where human emotions are constantly being wiped clean. For all our talk that we’re moving forward, or towards some brighter future, The New Animals suggests instead, that we’re simply circling around until we get too tired to do anything more. It left me stunned and heartbroken.
The New Animals by Pip Adam (Victoria University Press, $30) is number one in all the best-seller charts, and available at Unity Books.