Animals Eat Each Other
(Dzanc Books, 2018)
In her debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other, Elle Nash has no interest in testing boundaries; instead, she crashes right through:
The one who tied me to the coffee table was his girlfriend, Frances. Her hand was on my thigh, small and smooth and birdlike, occasionally caressing back and forth across my leg as I lay on my back, pressed into the living-room carpet. Frances was naked.
A later scene:
Frankie moved her hand to reach inside of me. The sharp point of her fingers was uncomfortable at first. After that. . . I seemed to pour into her hands. . . I focused on the parts that did feel good, like Frankie’s lips against mine at the same time that Matt’s hands enveloped my body.
To appreciate Animals Eat Each Other, a reader had better bring an appetite—pun intended. Sex is set out on a platter, front and center, and is the book’s overriding concern (“I’m pretty sure,” the narrator muses, “the meaning of life is about sex”), which makes the text rather a rarity these days: characters dripping with unapologetic want, and repeatedly pursuing that want, and all of this in a book that the folks in “marketing” would have no choice but to term “literary.”
Which is another way of saying that the fucking in this book never lacks for mind-fucking. If Elle Nash were simply doing porn, she’d omit the detail that before the orgy gets underway, Frankie and Matt’s baby is asleep just down the hall. Also the scene features an insight that’s pretty much a buzz-kill: “The sex became an absurd echo in which I was a caricature of myself.” Full of such subtle awareness, the rutting in Animals has only one recent comparison I can think of: Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You (2016). For others, I go back to early Mary Gaitskill, and then to Kundera and other brainy celebrants of the ’60s sexual revolution.
What’s more, what drives Nash’s plot is the same as what drives Proust’s, namely, obsession. Her unnamed narrator whips herself into a frenzy over married Matt. After he dubs her a “wild demon woman,” she tries to live up to the role, even playing sexy dress-up with his wife. Still, she knows herself better, just 93 pounds, still testing her limits with tattoos in sensitive spots; indeed, her 18th birthday provides an early plot-point, since it allows for trysts with her supervisor at Radio Shack. But her first visit to Matt and Frankie’s tiny place leaves her feeling like “a whole new thing;” she gets fresh tattoos, plus certain benefits, and earns a significant name: “Lilith.” This mythic creature, however, goes on to wreak her worst havoc internally. The narrator can’t control her surging infatuation, and Matt likewise confesses (shouting in her face, at a rave) “STRONG FEELINGS,” and in time “there was nothing I didn’t want to give him.” Meantime, though, the wife remains “in charge. . . the center of the mandala,” and so the husband and his Lilith get little more than brushes with intimacy.
The situation feels so unsettling that, about halfway along, the girl seeks the counsel of her best friend Jenny. Sex with Matt, she worries, feels “so intense. . . I could fuck him forever.” But Jenny dismisses the concern perfectly, given the context: “So? I could fuck you forever.”
A fine quip between another pair of animals eating each other. Also, the supervisor at Radio Shack has had both girls, and that trois may yet arrange a ménage. Nonetheless Nash, while entirely clear about who’s zoomin’ who, and when and where, continues to strike an admirable rhetorical balance. She falls into neither the euphemisms of erotica nor the posturing of porn, and she keeps tossing in playful fillips. Occasionally she gives a laugh-line to other characters, like Jenny, but one way or another things steer clear of gravitas, one of the great pitfalls of writing about sex.
I did wince at a moment or two of ersatz Beat transcendence: “I’m in Jenny’s basement, tongue deep in all that is holy about her.” Nevertheless, I found myself swept up in the hothouse atmosphere—all the more intriguing for how few folks were in it.
The most impressive thing about this debut, the gambit that holds the most promise for the future, is the tight rein Nash keeps on her drama. There’s the narrator and her obsession, the fuck-buddy and a few others—and that’s it. “Lilith” shares a trailer with her widowed mom, and she acknowledges towards the end that the death of her other parent left a bad wound, a “daddy-shaped hole.” Crucially, however, this glimmer of self-awareness changes nothing. The parents remain offstage, the mother either at work or in a Percocet haze, and the novel shares likewise little about its setting, Colorado Springs. The place seems all threadbare fringes, battered malls in which the players—with the help of X or vodka or, showing off nasty tattoos, some chat about Satanism—either tantalize each other or hook up. The text’s narrow social spectrum, I’m sure, would nettle another sort of critic, the kind who wonders why we should care about a few pretty white teenagers too drugged-up and sex-crazed to realize they’re nothing but fresh meat on Big Capital’s chopping block.
But that’s precisely the point, the tragedy. Even the narrator’s moments of sorry self-knowledge—more and more as things go on—risk getting smothered under the scuzzy milieu. You don’t want to know about Matt’s and Frankie’s kitchen, and as for anything more uplifting, for instance the nearby Garden of the Gods—uh, I think we had, like, a field trip. . .
As the original Lilith was cast out of Eden, this one has been banned from the American cornucopia (come to think, wasn’t Colorado Springs a gold-rush town?). What she wants from Matt, ultimately, isn’t just to fuck forever; rather her craving is for something more sustaining, for being “part of a young nuclear family,” and not just “a girl who lived in her mom’s trailer and snorted her mom’s Vicodin.” Thus while the story ends with the narrator booted out of her surrogate family, the novel opens outward triumphantly, for it proves this girl somehow escaped her dead-end rounds of groping and snogging. Starting early on, she has flash-forwards to the present, “years later,” when social media allows her to spy on Matt and Frankie. Online, the couple claims undiluted “matrimonial bliss,” with no trace of a demon woman, so who can blame this one for writing the truth? To that end, considering the narrator’s escape from her neediness and mess, I do think Animals Eat Each Other could’ve used some hint of a helping hand. Some decent adult connection deserved mention, perhaps a friend who worked in the library, someone to offer a more stable counterpoint to all the rudderless rutting. But that’s enough about what this book doesn’t have. Animals Eat Each Other is a swift, stealthy, ticklish, and altogether satisfying piece of work.