“All this sweet hope lost. Lost to time, to dust, to heat. Like the dinosaurs’ hopes, like the fish that left the sea, like the fish that stayed in the sea knew they wouldn’t see one another again” – but can hope be regained? Is there somewhere we can start again?
The new animals follows a group of people who work for an Auckland cutting edge fashion house through the day and night prior to an unscheduled photoshoot. The company is the creation of three young males, Kurt, Cal and Tommy, who represent “the new sincere, the anti-irony” generation who respect their parents, and who live online where they believe they are “part of the global conversation.”
Carla and Sharona are the previous generation – they are ‘old’ – in their 40s – one a contract hairdresser and the other the woman who creates the fashions. The young men treat them like shit, complaining that they “would bitch and moan about the way they ran things and where did they go to get paid?” When Kurt talked to women he “sounded like he was talking to a small child he was trying to coax down from a tree”. And Tommy “wasn’t talking to Sharona, he was talking to everyone else in the room, well, all the people who had penises”.
Carla on the outside is “polite and engaged” but inside she is an insecure wreck. She escaped for a few years and now she is back and “didn’t want to look naggy. That was the worst thing a woman could look, especially an old woman”. All the women are on edge, and Sharona momentarily tips over when Cal “wanted to cut the hem off the T-shirt … he doesn’t even know you can’t leave an unfinished edge on a weft-cut knit.”
Carla has a friend Duey, the only calm one, and the only one not sure about young make-up artist, Elodie: “Duey wasn’t sure she could be relied on as much as everyone thought. Young women were strange.” All the others are in Elodie’s thrall, in awe of her youth, and don’t realise she is using them to get information – information about where Carla had been when she escaped for all those years …
This is where we realise The new animals isn’t about the fashion industry at all: “everyone thought what they were doing was making the difference, when really, when everything went to shit, it became clear it was just money. You really couldn’t do anything wrong when there was a lot of money around.” If you have money you have a chance, if not you are a victim, a victim to bosses, to climate change, to homelessness.
Fashion is a metaphor for the disposable society, those things we reject when they go out of style, not when they wear out. And for the money gap: “There were people sleeping in the street … The bright, bright shops keeping the merchandise warm and the people outside them under cardboard and newspaper.” Shoes are $1000 shoes, a necklace is a $4000 necklace. I also really, really had to read the descriptions of Carla’s dog Doug as though they were symbolic of all “the intense boredom mixed with nerve-electrifying stress” wrapped up in an aggressive, frustrated, potential killer bundle of muscle. The alternative was too awful.
Clear headed Duey knows “The world was ending … It wasn’t just cynicism, or because she was old. It felt like the end. They’d all be underwater, soon enough. There was nothing anyone could do about it.” And all through the novel the sea is leaking in: “The fountain at Mission Bay was going, the water, the water, the water. Carla looked away from it and down at her phone. In Duey’s periphery it looked like she was diving into the sea.”
Elodie is young, unknowable, estranged from her politician father who thinks whatever the world’s problems “someone will find a way to tidy it up.’ And Elodie wants to escape the way she thinks Carla did: Carla who came back: “Cold, wet, naked. Quietly, without any attention, and she’d fit back in again, eyes fucked, skin awful, bung feet. She’d come back, washed away the salt, got dressed, and fallen back in line” – but Elodie won’t make the mistake of returning.
Elodie gets what she wants by being nice, appearing optimistic and being young. And she heads for the sea, believing in nothing but “fate and natural selection”. But after Carla, Sharona and Duey’s rebelliousness, and Kurt, Cal and Tommy’s vacuous outlook, does Elodie’s vision reach beyond the journey away? We love and fear the ocean as we love and fear our origins, the cold of the sea takes our thoughts away, but our curse on the land is taking over the sea. No, poor Elodie is as lost as all the others, and her destination, as we guess where that is towards the end, is the real-world horror we have conjured up by our rituals of excess.
Can hope be regained? Is there somewhere we can start again? Probably not, we just do whatever small thing we can and read amazing books like The new animals!