In our shaky existence under late-stage capitalism and deteriorating mental health, it doesn’t take a licensed medical professional to suggest we are rapidly becoming incompatible with the world we’ve built. Or is it the other way around?
Kiwi author Pip Adam explores this question in The New Animals (Dorothy, a publishing project; 2023), her second novel and first appearance in the U.S. after winning the 2018 Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction, one of New Zealand’s most distinguished literary awards. First published in 2017 by Victoria University Press (now Te Herenga Waka University Press), The New Animals is a prescient novel centering on the beauty and fashion industries and the people who run (or are run by) them. It is a genre-jumping and layered novel, by turns hilarious and humane, then spiky with frustration and heartache. It shapeshifts with each change of the book’s five narrators, creating a multidimensional structure that mirrors the personal and universal complexity of modern life.
We begin with Carla, a freelance hairdresser and the novel’s anchoring voice for the first two-thirds. Middle-aged, disenchanted with her life’s trajectory but trapped within it, Carla is experienced and unimpressed: “What was really reeking off her, what fell from her as she walked into these meetings, was that she had seen it and made it and broken it and been broken by it all before.” She is well-versed in fashion trends and the way styles circle back—and it shows, to the chagrin of Tommy, one her wealthy young bosses and the founder, along with Cal and Kurt, of the Auckland-based fashion house she works for. In one exchange that showcases Adam’s humor, Carla barely conceals her disdain for her employers’ recycled creativity and lame attempts to be edgy.
“We want the guy’s hair really short.” He ran his hand close to the side of his head, smoothing his long hair flat.[…]
“Really short,” Kurt said, still with his hands in his hair. “Almost like —”
Carla was pretty sure he was going to say “concentration camp.”
“Like, you know, the Nazis, like they’ve just been sprayed down with DDT and shaved.”
“But with, you know.” He was patting the top of his head now. He didn’t want them to actually look like victims of genocide. He wanted them to have style.
These are the haircuts envisioned for a photo shoot launching the fashion house’s new corporate line—a photo shoot spontaneously rescheduled for the very next morning when the leading member of the company’s triumvirate, Tommy, sees Carla’s incredulity “flash across [her] face. It was so quick, but so was he. Contempt. Worse, she was laughing at them.” The ensuing scramble to prepare for the photo shoot provides the major conflict of the novel, which we experience from almost every angle through various narrators who are involved or observe from a safer distance.
The narrative’s tension remains high as Carla and her colleagues Sharona and Elodie, joined by Duey, a fellow hairdresser and Carla’s friend, work to put out never-ending fires. Even as stress and desperation rise, and as the time to complete the photo shoot preparations rapidly elapses, each of them experiences their own moments of self-awareness and self-deprecation. “Carla was laughing at how ridiculously shallow the whole venture was. For fuck’s sake, you’d think they were flying a heart in from Guatemala.”
It’s a one-two punch, though. Immediately after Carla mocks herself for taking this objectively ridiculous drama so seriously, the vulnerable and uncomfortable realization of what it all amounts to for her personally, hits hard:
But she had to catch herself because, in a lot of ways, it was that important. If she didn’t do the right thing, if she wasn’t easy and proficient, she wouldn’t get paid, and if she didn’t get paid she couldn’t pay rent for the flat […], and even if she did get paid, Tommy would talk and talk and before she knew it her phone would go quiet and she would be out of work, and despite what Duey said, she wasn’t sure she could work in a salon again. Wasn’t sure that anyone would have her.
And just like that, we’re sober again—dutifully, fearfully, running for dear life on the hamster wheel that means nothing and everything.
There’s a nagging despair in the novel, a deep-seated trapped feeling regarding the exploitative system of capitalism—the constant expansion, the rising costs of living coupled with poorer pay and longer commutes, the incessant grinding down of resources, both human and environmental, and both psychological and physical. These sentiments are echoed throughout the narrative by most of the characters, and the novel’s revolving points of view add more and more weight to modern life’s nagging existential concerns.
However, The New Animals denies us any kind of predictable triumph or downfall— socialist, capitalist, or otherwise. With the photo shoot mere hours away, Elodie, the makeup artist, steps out of the narrative’s background for the first time and takes over the remaining third of the novel. When she leaves the workshop after the final walkthrough for the morning’s photo shoot, the predominating tension and stress of the earlier part of the novel reforms itself into unease, then confusion. Elodie ditches her phone in the street and her wallet in a taxi, and etches a final message in a window display of luxury handbags.
“She pulled out a tiny pair of scissors that she used to cut fake eyelashes. […] She got up and as she walked to the window she pulled the blunt blade and the point blade in opposite directions, an eye-ring in each hand, and as she reached the window the scissors came apart at the wing, spitting the screw to the footpath. She leant her cheek against the window, and holding the blade in a fist she scratched in her tiniest writing, ‘Good buy,’ because it was.”
While ostensibly going along with the change of plan for the photo shoot, Elodie had been on a completely different wavelength the entire time and committed to a separate goal—but it isn’t self-harm, as her unsettling behavior might initially suggest. It is at this point that the novel morphs into a new genre and abandons the narrative’s previous direction.
We never learn whether the photo shoot succeeds without Elodie; we never learn what Elodie’s colleagues make of her disappearance; we never revisit any of the characters who had previously carried the novel at all. Instead, the story transforms—if initially confusing and jarring—into an ethereal tale more aptly characterized as science fiction or magical realism. The final third of the novel follows Elodie to the harbor and beyond as she physically transforms into a marine animal. We witness evolution at top speed as Elodie adjusts to the salt water, overcomes the problems of food and hydration, schools her breathing, and mentally adapts to the inhospitable and unnatural environment: “But she wouldn’t die, because she knew how to be here. At least, part of her did. It would be fine. Elodie swam on, stronger. She could feel north in her heart, feel it pulling her towards warmer water.”
The unexpected way the book moves toward its title may have readers recalling the “flight forward” fiction of Argentine author Cesar Aira, known for letting his imagination lead the progress of the book, no edits. It’s tempting to believe Adam’s other work might use a similar technique. Her debut, the short story collection, Everything We Hoped For, was described as a “kind of post-post-modern fiction,” by one reviewer and cinched the Hubert Church Best First Book Award for fiction in 2011. Another reviewer hailed Adam’s first novel I’m Working on a Building (2013) as “The finest piece of writing in New Zealand fiction this century.” Two more novels published since: Nothing to See (2020) and Audition (2023) were described as books that “manage to scrub away at corners of my brain that have never seen light.” Regarding New Animal as her breakout, Philip Matthews, one of the judges on the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards panel that selected the novel to win the prestigious Acorn Foundation Prize in 2018, wrote that The New Animals “pushes at the boundaries of what fiction can do.”
It’s imaginative fiction in a way that is jolting to the auto-fiction that is so prevalent today, and it allows Adam to make commentary on the disasters of human ambition. By the final scene of the book, an aquatically adapted Elodie arrives at one of the ocean’s garbage islands and sets up camp by lashing together enough plastic to build a platform. “Later, when the sun went down, she pulled up one of the trapped fish and sat on her raft and watched the sun go down all the way for the first time. […] But then she ate, and she didn’t think anymore.” Though a bizarre place to take us and then leave off, Adam’s The New Animals does deliver what it says on the tin: Elodie has become a new animal, adapted to a new world of her own choosing. After all the despair and anxiety of the first two-thirds of the novel, there is a strange hope in Elodie’s section as she enters the water not to die but to live.