Pip Adam’s The New Animals is a claustrophobic satire that dissects modern life with an unflinching eye. Set in 2016, the novel takes place over the course of a single day in Auckland, New Zealand, following a group of fashion-industry workers—designers, pattern-makers, stylists, hairdressers—as they prepare for a last-minute photo shoot.
At the center of the novel is Carla, a forty-three-year-old hairdresser who has spent too much of her life in fashion and is indignant that she has ended up working for a bunch of wealthy, entitled millennial designers. However, Carla’s acerbic interior monologues bely a deeper sense of existential disconnection. Tommy, the visionary that heads the clothing label and employs Carla, constantly seeks Carla’s approval while also feeling responsible for fixing the mess left by Carla’s generation: “The planet was dying, there was poverty. This was what they’d left them.”
The thread of fashion is woven throughout The New Animals, with Adam noting the perversity of how we decide what is fashionable and gently skewering the millennial designers’ almost painful sincerity about their work. Yet she also maintains a reverence and respect for the art of fashion, inviting us at one point to appreciate the beauty in a simple white T-shirt: “The cotton had a nylon mix in it and the fabric fell long and still. It was so white as well. Like Jesus-in-heaven white… She loved the sleeves on it. The sleeves were a fucking revelation.” Ultimately, however, we are left unsettled by the consumerist, disposable nature of fashion and its devastating ecological impact, a fact that becomes increasingly impossible to ignore.
Divided by generation and class, Adam’s characters are quietly at war not only with one another—their conversations are rife with hidden meanings and misinterpretations—but also with themselves, often taking stabs at their own disappointing traits: “She was lazy. Really. That’s what it always came down to. Too lazy to succeed, really. In any real way.” The one exception is Elodie, the young “dumb nice” makeup artist, whom everyone appears to be sleeping with but no one seems to actually understand.
As Carla walks around Auckland, having meetings, cutting hair, and brimming with Gen X cynicism, she reflects on a city in constant flux: “She’d lived in Auckland for forty-three years and it still wasn’t finished. Nothing stayed in place.” Adam also floods the text with hyper-specific geographical details, describing Auckland with the same offhanded familiarity as another writer might London or New York. We sense that this once-quaint New Zealand town, previously a haven from the overpopulated global metropolises of the world, is now suffocating under the pressure of its own self-importance—it is a rapidly gentrifying city, now itself overpopulated and unsustainable.
The day wears on, and Carla’s entire life seems to be teetering on the edge of collapse. The threats feel at once looming—her career may soon be drying up, her one close friendship is dissolving, her flat is almost unlivable—and imminent: her neglected pit bull, Doug, is homicidal, and their interactions are becoming more hostile by the day. “They were pitched against each other. Only one of them would walk away from this. Carla had the upper hand, literally—opposable thumbs, bipedal locomotion, technology—but Doug had teeth and was only muscle.”
In the final third of the novel, Adam sheds the constraints of social realism and the narrative is transformed into a kind of oceanic dystopian fever dream. A less ambitious, less confident writer might not want to disorient their readers with such experimentation. But Adam would rather have us experience these ideas and be inundated by them than simply read about them. That sense of inescapability—from class, from the oceans we are polluting, from the future—is at the heart of The New Animals, and it all leads to the same place: “Everything that came to the ocean came for a reason. Some of it stayed, some of it was just passing through. But everything ended up here in the sea.”
Publisher: Dorothy, a publishing project Page count: 272 Price: $16.95 Key quote: “They care too much. They care crazily about things that no one gives a fuck about—or should. That was why they ran the world.” Shelve next to: Janet Frame, Dorthe Nors, Catherine Lacey Unscientifically calculated reading time: One luxuriously long hair appointment, waiting for the foils to set