A few year ago I read, and loved, Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway. A surreal esoteric detective novel, its weirdness was wonderful so I was highly anticipating this earlier novel, Animals.
Ostensibly, Animals charts the mental and physical breakdown of an unnamed narrator, as he wanders around his city and becomes terrifyingly aware of the creatures that live in close proximity to us in our daily lives.
The novel opens with the narrator looking back on the strange events that have unfolded in the previous week. He is an illustrator and lives with his partner, K. He is sensitive, a worrier and he tells his story in a confusing and disordered way as he tries to make sense of what is happening to him.
The first chapter is, I kid you not, an 18 page musing on whether or not to poke a dead mouse. The encounter seems innocuous but the emotional and physical impact of this internal debate as to whether to poke, or not poke the mouse precipitates a disintegration into paranoia and terror that is as mundane as it is terrifying.
So I have to start with the mouse. Which is not ideal, because it is now exactly what you’d call very exciting, in itself, even though, the more I think about it, the more it sums up everything else; and in a way, if I was brave, and if my bravery was confident of your bravery, I should just tell you about the mouse and leave it at that.
This is Ridgway’s stylistic skill – he can create a wonderful sense of foreboding from the oddest and slightest of narrative events. After the encounter with the mouse, the narrator’s life gets stranger and stranger. He has a near miss with a collapsing ceiling at his local swimming pool. He gets locked in to a local park after closing time. There is a haunted office building and an actress who films herself on the toilet. The more he worries about things that could go wrong, the more they go wrong.
Add to this the animals, which start to appear everywhere the more his paranoia grows. Spiders, dogs, mice – our narrator becomes neurotically aware of the danger these creatures pose to him on a daily basis and he begins to fear for his place in the food chain.
A pack of cats infested a tree at my back. The see-saw was perfectly balanced with a blooded fox on one side and its weight in spiders on the other. None of this is true.
If none of this is true, then what are we reading? What can we trust? Are the events of the past week simply
… nothing more than the physical manifestation of my own fear of the real world – by which I mean the natural world, by which I mean those parts of the world that are not created and controlled by us. By mankind.
The question of reality, or the reality that humans cultivate for themselves, is central to the book. Ridgway, and the narrator himself, asks us to consider if any of what we are reading is actually happening. How much is reality and how much is fiction?
Then she announced that she had met K. She remembered it well. She described K to me, but the person she described was not K. She shrugged, as if it was possible that ir was me who was mistaken rather than her.
As an illustrator, the narrator creates a specific version of life as requested by his clients. He has two friends who also create their own realities. David is a fantasy novelist who hasn’t written anything, but has devoted years of his life creating a detailed topography and mythology for the fictional universe he intends to write about.
Rachel, a conceptual artist, creates stories of rumour and untruth – a missing person, a knife-wielding attacker who appears on buses – and watches to see how her self-designed urban myths take hold out in the real world.
Everyone in Animals is so busy accumulating the context of their lives that their actual lives are getting lost in the process.
David doesn’t want to refer to this world at all but rather create a new one and refer to that, as if something profound or good can come from weightlessness, when in fact it’s not weightlessness at all, it’s a clutter of rubble like cheap tacky scrap metal, like the bits and pieces of his broken-down world. It’s the apparatus of fear disassembled and reorganised to look simpler, cleaner. But it just looks sillier. And the fear remains.
Unlike animals, humans feel the need to create narratives and rituals to guard against the fear that is the knowledge of our own death. Be it through art, terrorism, religion, advertising or shopping, we aim to control what can, ultimately, never be controlled.
Capitalism is violence contained, channelled, made acceptable, long-term, packaged out and rationed as a distraction and amusement. This world is a fucking nightmare, yes. What has capitalism done? It’s buffered us from the world. It’s put a great big comfortable cushion between us and the hoary horns of nature.
Man’s distance from nature, his diminishing ability to connect with humanity on any meaningful level are deftly explored in this brilliant and bewildering book. Ridgway is a fan of Beckett and it shows – the unknowable terrain, the search for meaning, and most importantly, the humour.
Animals is strange and confusing, but it is also very funny. Like Beckett, Ridgway knows that there is humour in even the darkest situations and that it has to be sought out. The themes he is exploring here are not new, but the style he explores them in is incredibly unique. This is an intelligent and compassionate novel that takes the most surreal of situations and uses it to urge us to live more determinedly in the present.
…we don’t see the claw and the hoof and the fang and the blood that really runs this place. The guts of it. We never see any of that fibre and sinew and mess and stench. But the problem is now that we never see anything else either, other than the shit we’ve made, and how shit it is. We never see things that even our grandparent saw, like the Milky Way. Or an otter.
I read Animals as part of my RIP Challenge for October.
Read on: Kindle
Number Read: 200
Number Remaining: 546
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!