Boundaries of Desire: On Elle Nash’s ‘Animals Eat Each Other’
Nash’s short novel is electric, sensual, and brutally human, and explores the boundaries of sexual desire.
Novel | 128 Pages | 5.8” x 8.8” | Reviewed: Electronic ARC
978–1–938604–43–0 | First Edition | $16.95
Dzanc Books | Ann Arbor | BUY HERE
I love short novels. I firmly believe there are not enough short novels in the world. With a novel that embraces brevity, there exists a balance between the pace of a short story and the emotional breadth of a longform work. There are so many exceptional short novels, and Elle Nash’s debut, Animals Eat Each Other, belongs on that list. Electric, sensual, and brutally human, Nash explores the boundaries (or lack thereof) when it comes to sexual desire. It is an exquisitely crafted work where every sentence feels so important, so real that it stings the skin.
“I thought about blood, and bodies and blood, and how the coming together of different meats and textures created a human body and then a human brain. How the leap from primordial soup was a kind of coagulation, reaching back to spores and algae. Life was a kind of summoning. Sex was a kind of summoning too[.]”
The story follows an initially nameless narrator who, at 19 and stuck in her hometown of Colorado Springs, is at that stage in life where everything and nothing makes sense. From a single-parent, working-class family living in a trailer park, the narrator spends her time working, sneaking pills, drinking, and sleeping with her boss, Sam. Her coworker, Jenny, introduces the narrator to Frankie and Matt, a couple looking to implement a third player into their sex life. The narrator takes on this role and is christened “Lilith” by the couple, prompting her to reflect on how she seeks to be something for other people, not for herself. Three is a magic and volatile number, and Nash pushes the tension of this arrangement to the breaking point, examining what it means to lust, to love, to let go, and to grow up.
I normally dislike coming-of-age stories, especially those that feature a “broken” young woman who often makes bad choices, so it is a true testament to Nash’s skill as a writer that I would easily list this novel as one of my favorite books of 2018. What separates Nash’s novel from other Bildungsromans is the direct and vibrant way she writes characters, particularly Lilith, who, despite meandering down a path of possible self-destruction, is incredibly self-aware and articulate. She is a strong character who acknowledges and even questions her motives for doing what she does, often taking brief moments to reflect beautifully on the struggles of growing up and developing an identity as a young person. In a subgenre that relies on clueless or insufferable narrators, Nash’s Lilith shines as a truly dynamic, surprising character.
“I started to crawl forward like an animal. The tough carpet scraped my knees. I watched the faces of other people. I didn’t look like them. They all looked the same — clean, happy. I felt vulnerable and sad and empty, even as I was satisfied that I was brave enough to do what Frankie wanted. 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.”
There’s a tongue-in-cheek tone that slips in and out of the novel, further indicating Lilith’s (and the author’s) strong insight into the narrative and the clichés it successfully subverts. This novel has some of the funniest, most biting chapter titles, including, “If You Don’t Leave Your Home Town after High School, You’ll Just Get Bad Tattoos and Do Lots of Drugs” and “The Thing about Boundary Issues Is that You End up Fucking Your Friends or Maybe Everyone You Know.” Despite all the intensity of the emotions present within the narrative, there is a distinct lack of sentimentality in tone, which is reflected in the darkly hilarious, matter-of-fact titles. Although the typical coming-of-age narrative often reaches toward the ooey, gooey ‘everything will be all right as long as you learn the moral of the story,’ Nash’s rendition of growing up pushes back against expectations and revels in the darkness and difficulties of human interaction in a way that makes no apologies.
“This time, I am not the dumb girl. I am the smart girl. Jenny is the dumb girl because she let or is letting her dumb feelings get the best of her. She told another coworker, and I quote, ‘I think I’m falling for him.’ DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Getting attached to someone is not good.”
One of the biggest themes in the novel is the drive of the id. This urge to destroy and consume is reflected in the title, and it is not limited to Lilith seeking to destroy herself. Matt, too, expresses an interest in succumbing to “bad” temptations, at one point showing Lilith his copy of the Satanic Bible, a text that emphasizes and celebrates the primitive wants of humankind. This focus on the self at the expense of others extends to the relationship between the three lovers. Despite the abstract rules imposed by Frankie regarding their sexual arrangement (Matt can never be with Lilith outside of Frankie’s presence, for instance), Lilith and Matt begin to test these boundaries, placing their mutual desire for each other over respect for Frankie. Constantly, the characters are faced with offsetting their animal sides with their human sides, balancing the intoxicating pull of Eros and Thanatos.
Love and sex are complexities of the human experience, and Nash does a brilliant job of depicting that any character can be cruel. There are no real losers in Animals Eat Each Other, but there are no clear winners, either, with every character equal parts good and bad. To an outside eye, Lilith might appear a backstabbing homewrecker, but once the feelings and motives are parsed out, it is evident that there is much more bubbling beneath the surface for every character. Lilith fiends for being wanted, even when it means destroying relationships. Sam uses Lilith and Jenny for sex and rarely reciprocates with anything more substantial than lust. Frankie has an outrageous temper and commits domestic violence against Matt. Matt can’t commit to anyone, not even the mother of his child. As I read the book, I found myself hating this character or that character, but only for a little while. At one point, I hated Lilith for actively trying to break up a couple with a child; at another, I blamed Frankie and Matt for using Lilith to try to fix their relationship. Nash, however, never passes judgments on her characters, and she doesn’t let her reader pass judgment, either, at least not for long. When it comes to the intricate ties between Lilith and the people in her life, there is nobody who is without blame.
“I was a pet though. It is important to remember that. What it means to be chosen first is different — to be under the arms of someone, close to the ribs. Right up next to the chest, but not in the heart. Lilith, a pet who isn’t from the body of man.”
With Animals Eat Each Other, everything is broken and beautiful, and the reader is forced to reconsider his expectations for a young woman coming of age in the modern world. Although the best example of Nash’s brilliance as a writer lies with her expertise in building tension between her multi-faceted characters, she excels across the board. She maintains the tautness and pace of a short story while allowing the characters’ conflicts to breathe and expand outward. This is a supremely gripping work, and I was invested the whole way, often sneaking paragraphs at work because I couldn’t resist reading it. Finally, Nash’s command of language is incredible, as she builds exquisitely lyrical passages without ever straying into sentimentality. Her debut work is a pure triumph that embraces brevity and minimalism while reaching far outside its pages. Animals Eat Each Other is a remarkable novel that crackles from beginning to end.