Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 3, 2019

The New Animals, by Pip Adam

The New Animals by Pip Adam has been on my radar since it won the Ockham New Zealand award last year, but it was a provocative review by Carl Shuker at the Spinoff that triggered my impulse to read it. The review was titled ‘On the blind, mulish idiocy of reviewers and the genius of Pip Adam’ so you get the general idea without needing to read it, but of course I read it anyway.  I found it entertaining, but not entirely convincing because I follow a couple of NZ blog reviewers and find them wholly undeserving of Shuker’s spray.  But his article did convince me to get Pip Adam’s book out of the library to see what I think of it.

(My guess is that Carl Shuker (whose book I reviewed here) will come in for some hostile questioning at the Auckland Writers Festival later this month!)

Books like The New Animals are sometimes called Marmite books, because readers either love them or they hate them.  You can see that at Goodreads where The New Animals is rated either 5 stars or one, with effusive praise or derision.  I’m rating it 4 stars because I reserve 5 stars for James Joyce’s Ulysses, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance and Shell by Kristina Olsson.  So no, I don’t think The New Animals is a work of genius.  But it is very good and well worth reading.

The book is written in two parts.  The second part, reminiscent of William Golding’s Pincher Martin and yet written from a different angle altogether, is a chilling depiction of despair morphing into tragedy. The first part is, as the author says, a love story to the profession of hairdressing (which is the work she did to enable her to write).This is the blurb:

Carla, Sharon and Duey have worked in fashion for longer than they care to remember, for them, there’s nothing new under the sun. They’re Generation X: tired, cynical and sick of being used.

Tommy, Cal and Kurt are Millennials, they’ve come from nowhere, but with their monied families behind them they’re ready to remake fashion. They represent the new sincere, the anti-irony. Both generations are searching for a way out, an alternative to their messed-up reality.

Pip Adam’s new novel walks the streets of Auckland city now, examining the fashion scene, intergenerational tension and modern life with an unflinching eye. From the wreckage and waste of the 21st century, new animals must emerge.

As the novel explores the world these characters live in, a reader like me becomes torn between finding them bizarre, shallow and incredibly narcissistic, and recognising that they’re part of an industry that looks glamorous but is actually insecure, badly paid and unfulfilling.  The constant introspection of the characters worrying about what others are thinking makes them shapeless sort of people.  They are afraid of conflict because their work is insecure and changeable: they are easily replaceable so their communication is fragile and inconclusive.  Their anxiety about how they are perceived is palpable.  They worry about short-term problems and trivial things because it is too frightening to look into the future when they can’t change anything anyway.

There’s a scene early in the novel where one of the characters is on a train.  Carla inspects some teenagers who are self-consciously fiddling with their straightened hair and trying to look as if it doesn’t matter.  But straightened hair has been around too long, apparently, and it was time for a change and this looked like it.  My reaction to this was to feel despair that women still evaluate each other like this, and to reject the fashion values that demand constant change.  But the novel makes it clear that a reaction like mine is a luxury that not everyone has.

The New Animals is very good at subverting what we think we know about the world. Much later in the book Elodie ponders the monstrous island of plastic in the ocean and recognises that charging for plastic bags in supermarkets isn’t going to change anything: People loved throwing things out, people loved using things once and throwing it out —it made them feel like they were rich. People (in the wealthy West, that is) also invest significance in trivia: Tommy’s ambition is to design the perfect white T-shirt.  Seriously?  Is there a difference between one white T-shirt and another?  Sharona, who has to turn Tommy’s autocratic demands into reality, says he doesn’t even know that you can’t leave an unfinished edge on a weft-cut knit.  He is the designer, but he has no idea.  He’s like the owners of hairdressing salons, the investors who have no background in the job, who buy into multiple salons and are more interested in upselling ‘product’.  So true, I thought, when I came across Duey’s musings:

Don’t ever promise anyone anything their hair won’t do.  It was this that set the hairdressers at the salon apart; it kept their books full, which meant they could keep the product shelf at the front of the salon the same size, while all the other places took out chair after chair and loaded it up with shampoo bottles.  People don’t want to be sold at.  They just want to sit down, have a cup of tea or a glass of wine and have their hair done.  (p.142)

The plot, such as it is, might exasperate readers who don’t like ambiguity.  Tommy has decided, on a whim, that they’ll do a photo shoot the next day.  That is, on less than 24 hours notice.  The samples, sent away to Indonesia (where they are manufactured next door to Louis Vuitton, not selling quality any more, only scarcity), have not landed back in Australia.  Sharona has to work till midnight to create what she remembers of the design from what’s left of other garments.  Models have to be found and prepped for the grungy effect that’s wanted.  It’s unreasonable and ridiculous but no one will challenge Tommy because he’s the designer and they are just the people who make things happen. If you’re expecting to find out whether the shoot comes off or not, you’ll be disappointed.  Because that’s not really what the novel is ‘about’.

The character who best represents what the novel is about, IMO, is Doug—a pit-bull terrier who was acquired solely for the purpose of a previous photo shoot and then abandoned by the stylist.  Everyone simply walks out, leaving Carla with the dog, and she can’t take it back to the shelter because the stylist told them she was giving Doug a ‘forever home’.  The dog has been brutalised by its former owners, it’s incredibly aggressive, and Carla who takes it home to her flat is terrified of it.  She thinks that it will kill her or she’ll kill it, and in the meantime it is (literally) destroying her flat, which means she’ll lose her bond and be blacklisted as a tenant.  Doug represents all the people who are used, and tossed away afterwards, and who fight back with violence because life makes them indifferent to human affection and careless about the property of others.  It’s a very confronting image which will stay with me for a long time.

Author: Pip Adam
Title: The New Animals
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2017, 220 pages
ISBN: 9781776561162
Source: Bayside Library, Sandringham Branch

Available from Fishpond: The New Animals


Responses

  1. Haha, Lisa, I love your asides sometimes, like “I’m rating it 4 stars because I reserve 5 stars for James Joyce’s Ulysses, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance and Shell by Kristina Olsson.” (That is, your continuing to promote Shell!! I really would like to read it)

    BTW I’ve never heard the term Marmite book.

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    • LOL I’ve heard it used on and off in the UK but of course here we would mostly say a Vegemite book:)
      I love Shell. I know it’s been passed over for major awards, but I don’t care, it’s a book that’s going to stay the distance because it’s about really important things.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll sit down this weekend and make a list of what sound like the edgier books of the past year, I’ll put this one on, and Shell, and then I’ll see what my bookshop has. (I’m in Box Hill this weekend so if your multitudinous readership can tell me a bookshop open on Sunday I might make an early start).

    Liked by 1 person

    • You might find The New Animals a bit hard to find in Melbourne. If you do have to order it, try Fishpond because they don’t charge postage from NZ to here.

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  3. […] Pip Adam (NZ), The New Animals (ANZLitLovers) […]

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  4. […] week before you take off overseas?  I hope no one detected a note of panic in my hasty reviews of The New Animals; A Mistake and The Resurrection of Winne Mandela but I have managed to dash through them in under […]

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  5. There was a time when I objected to shallow and narcissistic characters as being not well fleshed out. Unfortunately however, there really are people in this world who seem on the surface like this. In terms of ambiguity in books I also think that is a true representation of the world.

    I also reserve five star reviews for works of timeless brilliance.

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    • Indeed, I remember reading something like what you describe when I was doing a shadow jury for the Man Asian. Exasperating, vacuous characters, and extremely tiresome to read. What’s amazing about this book is that Pip Adam has the same kind of people, but the book *doesn’t* make me want to throw it across the room!

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