Joan, the heroine of Animal, is the kind of person who constantly tells you what kind of person she is. Lisa Taddeo’s debut novel follows her nonfiction hit Three Women, and the mathematically sharp among you will notice a reduction in scale: there’s one truly important person here, while all the others are there to limn her. Joan leaves New York for Los Angeles to unravel her past after her boss-slash-inamorato shoots himself. The rest of the novel consists of flashbacks, set up by real-time events that contribute more to structure than momentum.
It’s notable that Joan has a name, for she is precisely the sort of narrator it’s become fashionable to leave anonymous: a fading temptress and low-key con artist, prone to glorifying her own pain, who steals objects and hates everything. She is nearly 37, and has “eaten too much caviar with men who didn’t marry [her]”.
Animal recalls themes from Three Women – beautiful Italian women, older men, a didactic undercurrent on how the world shapes women. Joan’s aunt Gosia, a sort of vampier Miss Havisham, teaches her to leverage her erotic capital and lavishes her with Manolos, Louboutins and Chanel mules. Drink every time another character buys Joan a luxury item, and you’ll have a very good time indeed. Do it when she calls herself a whore and you’ll be under the table.
Joan’s own voice comes to seem like Gosia’s as she lectures the reader on managing men and on appearance and taste. She’s a hybrid of Ottessa Moshfegh’s narrators in Eileen, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation, with the former’s retrospective tetchiness and the latter’s snobbish vulnerability. There’s also a touch of Cusk in Joan’s knack for running into quotable strangers. They never fail to set up Joan’s epigrams, and they’re especially obliging in dredging up dark memories. At times the novel reads as if Joan were in a theme park engineered to issue her with psychodynamic therapy. If Disneyland has a mouse costume everywhere you turn, Animal has a pat developmental claim: “I hated my mother, in short, for being a woman.”
When she’s not describing herself, Joan is comparing herself with other women, sizing up status and genre of sexual appeal (her mother’s: “old-fashioned … pinup”; hers: “hotel-room … succubus”). Other characters share this habit of brisk typecasting, so that they all start to talk the same: “He said his accountant was the type who should go to jail but never would.” Everyone in this novel sounds like Lisa Taddeo, is what I’m saying. This doesn’t make for effective characterisation, but in fairness I wouldn’t mind everyone in the world sounding like her.
The other thing Joan does is address you in the second-person, like so, until you wonder what you’ve done to her. At first I was wary that this you-device would serve only as a smug postmodern reminder that the novel is a mediated narrative. “You’ll come to understand why”, “I will tell you all about it”, “I wonder if he will mean anything to you”, you’re told, and it seems unduly presumptuous that “you’ll” keep reading.
There’s more going on with it than that, though, as later it emerges that Joan is often addressing a particular “you” whose future she worries about. That grounded “you” fascinates me. Elsewhere, as a purely aphoristic reflex, it dilutes Joan’s experiences. I don’t care how “you” feel when “you” are in love with a married man; a more specific phraseology would prompt greater rigour. Nor are we ever far from the simile-based zinger, great at the minimum effective dose but here overused: “He smiled at me conspiratorially, like here we were being bacchanalian and the person on the other end of that line was probably folding laundry.”
I hope Taddeo doesn’t write with anything so ghastly as a “target audience” in mind, but I am certain her publisher’s marketing department has one and that I am in it. Give me a million books about washed-up glamour queens stewing in their own juices, and I will beg you for a review copy of book number million-and-one. Could it be that the genre makes me feel heard? I cannot possibly comment, writing this review in my London room with a sore throat from back-to-back literary events, exquisitely impractical shoes strewn everywhere, and plants dying because I forgot I owned them when lockdown lifted. Joan calls herself a “certain type of woman”, and Animal is a certain type of novel. If my description appeals to you, then chances are you’ll enjoy it.