I hadn’t heard of Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other before reading the succinct and compelling review that Callum wrote about it last month, but it sounded like just the sort of brief, bizarre, and hard-hitting story that’s been working so well for me this year. I couldn’t miss it. (And if this book sounds at all interesting, you can’t miss Callum’s review!)
In the novel, “Lilith,” not long out of high school, is working with an old friend at a RadioShack. One day an enigmatic couple enters the store, and the friend persuades “Lilith” to show them her latest tattoo. Later, “Lilith” is told that the pair is interested in her, and she goes to their apartment to meet them again. Mark and Frankie name her Lilith and adopt her as their girlfriend, treating her more like a pet than an equal. As she becomes more involved with them, she grows less certain of herself.
“All I could think about was how I was not like these people, and how that was bad. I wanted to feel part of something. I wanted Frankie to like me so badly. I was ready to mold myself into what she wanted.”
At its core, this slip of a novel is an examination of identity; how we define who we are, how other people can change our sense of self, what is left of us in times when those powerful influences are not present. “Lilith,” our first person protagonist who reveals no name for herself beyond what Mark and Frankie bestow upon her, is only nineteen and at a perfect point in her life for a crisis in self-discovery. Most of the cast is around the same age, floating between legal adulthood (18) and the legal age for alcohol consumption (21- US); they are more or less all leaning on each other… some leaning a little harder than others.
“I spent so much of my life doing what everybody asked me that I wasn’t even sure what I wanted anymore, if I wanted anything, if I had needs at all.”
The book opens with an intense glimpse into Lilith’s sex life with Matt and Frankie; it’s a grim but memorable moment that sets the tone for everything that will follow. It did leave me a bit worried that Lilith’s account of this period of personal exploration might deteriorate into explicit gratuity, but fortunately this is not the case. Nash keeps the focus consistently on the protagonist’s emotional and mental state, displaying behaviors primarily as a means of characterization and development. There is no denying the narration’s brutal honesty, but it’s handled shrewdly. In fact, there were a few instances in which I had to double check the MC’s age, such is the level of her self-awareness. She may be confused about what she’s gotten into and where it will end for her, but she does recognize that a major change is taking place and is often able to pinpoint what unsettles her.
One thing I found particularly interesting about this story is that while her experiences with Matt and Frankie clearly alter our protagonist, it seems equally clear that her shaky sense of identity runs deeper than this questionable relationship. Well before meeting Matt and Frankie, she’s tattooed the backs of her thighs with a slogan she’s not sure has ever fit her. She began sleeping with her boss only to tick off a box on a list of taboos. She took a job because her mother prodded her to, and chose the RadioShack because her friend was able to get her a position there. It seems as though Lilith has been waiting a long time for someone to tell her what to do and who to be; she’s uniquely suited for this story. If Matt and Frankie had approached anyone other than this girl they’ve managed to shape as their Lilith, it’s hard to believe that things would have escalated to the level that they do.
“I was an object in her eyes. I was a tool. Every time I heard the name Lilith, pieces of me slipped and gave way underneath her perception of me.”
The only other element that curbed my enthusiasm for this book was the writing- I just didn’t quite get on with Nash’s style. Though I tabbed over a dozen brilliant lines and passages in this 120-page volume, there were plenty of places where it felt to me like the narration was trying a bit too hard to be taken as profound. Furthermore, I thought it relied a little too heavily on telling rather than showing in a way that might have been avoided if the piece had been given a bit more length; some of my favorite concepts and observations in the narration came as quick comments and then were left behind, where I would have appreciated further expansion. The plot is fairly predictable, which shouldn’t matter too much in a character study like this, but when a character takes center stage in this way I hope for a full exploration, to an extent I didn’t quite find here.
But overall, I did find the story compulsively readable. It’s main theme- that people destroy each other- will stick with me, as will some of the more vivid details. There’s one scene, in which Frankie displays her power over Lilith in a very public way at the local WalMart, that will particularly haunt me.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m still debating between a 3 and 4 star rating here, and may change this number as I let it settle more firmly in my mind. Though it didn’t have quite as strong an effect on me as I was hoping for based on its early chapters, this was nevertheless a captivating and read that left quite an impression. I’m glad I picked it up, and would certainly be curious to check out more from this author if she were to publish again.
The Literary Elephant