To borrow a phrase from its main character, this book is “a story of consumption.” Hunger—for sex, love, high art, truth, authentic experience—drives the narrative, wavering between hollow pain, satisfaction, and over-indulgence. The Animators is at first wild, wicked fun. As it progresses, the work deepens to the profound. You’ll fall for the two main characters—animation partners, friends so close they’re family—as they falter, then rise, as they grow up and into their art and their life’s work. Kayla Rae Whitaker writes with an awe-inspiring wildness and an undercurrent of anger.
Sharon Kisses—yes, her name is explained—shows up at the renowned Ballister Art Institute with a chip on her shoulder about her poor Kentucky upbringing. Kisses meets Mel Vaught in her first class. The spell is cast. The two are magnet-drawn to one another’s talent, Sharon sensing in Mel a rawness she herself lacks, thrilled that someone so overtly talented, charismatic, and, well, cool wants to be friends. Kisses describes their first meeting as a “curiously pleasurable pressure…something tinged with pain at the edges. It was an expansive, generous feeling.” It is exactly this mood—expansive, generous—that informs this novel’s characters.
The opening pages are a slow entry to an otherwise all-consuming novel, the only moment of the book that feels like a debut. And yet: we need to see this dynamic form. Uncool, unworldly Sharon pairing up with the brash, unmatched Mel. We need to witness Sharon being seen for the first time, so that the next 350 pages feel fully realized. The pain of each fight between these women is deepened by their shared history.
Early on, Sharon Kisses admits to an “infatuation problem.” Success doesn’t help. “Here’s the hard truth,” she tells us, whispering like an old friend on her third drink. “If you are a woman: Being an artist, even a good one, doesn’t get you dick.” This knack for confession that feels naked (but never too much) is an uncommon strength in Whitaker’s work. The honesty draws us to Kisses, allows us to see her as more than just the put-together one in the partnership, makes us understand the early, primal pain that pushed her outside Kentucky and into art. We see her as radiant, as rare, as if we are watching her through Mel Vaught’s eyes.
There’s a nakedness to this book, but it’s not meant as confession alone. This book shows its scars and in doing so, shows the reader her own, reflected back. It reads like Meg Wolitzer’s account of Tig Notaro’s infamous half-naked set. The moment Notaro whips off her shirt, mid-HBO special, and continues telling jokes, mastectomy scars on view for the rest of the night.
Hunger aside, it is love that courses through these women’s veins, love for each other, and for art. As they age and find critical acclaim, life gets chaotic and difficult. Cheap beer is traded for lavish artist grants. NPR and Charlie Rose come knocking. Mel’s mother dies in prison. Sharon suffers a stroke, in her thirties. But, these women do not fall apart. They fall together, turn inwards. Mel is openly gay and in love with Sharon. Sharon is ruler-straight and, needing Mel as family, doesn’t notice this other sort of love. This will-they, won’t-they serves as an undercurrent of tension throughout the book, adding distance and desire to the characters’ art, their friendship. Their partnership isn’t easy. The romantic and platonic overlap. And because of that intersection, this book reads like real life.
It’s rare to find a book about such hunger for love that does not fall prey to a wildness of form, nor settle into neat romantic ideals. Kayla Rae Whitaker is unafraid of the messy. She writes her way into pain, rising anger, old regret. She can write success and joy as well as grief. Pleasure alongside bodily pain. Bodies revolt, turn old and stop working. Whitaker is aware of how animation affects the body—backs stooping, hands cramping. Her characters are not sketches but full of movement, animated off the page and into life.
The highest form of connection, in this book, is the art of telling one’s origin story, the act of turning life into art. In that way, it is hard to avoid reading into this novel a meta narrative: animation as a way to explore the act of writing itself. The biggest gift Whitaker gives her readers, the few of us who write, anyway, is the drive to get back to the chair, the empty computer screen. To take the broken heart, the empty longing at the end of this book and turn that pain into art.
“I became an artist,” Sharon Kisses says, “because I wanted to make a world in which I was not the pursued but the pursuer; because I needed to discorporate. I struggled. I was afraid I wasn’t very good. I was jealous and lonely. I was frequently sad.” Aren’t we all? And yet, reading Whitaker’s debut novel, with the jealousy and loneliness on full view, this naked, in your face, vulnerability, admitting to the painful lack where love should be—we readers are a little less lonely. We, in fact, are not alone.