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Appetite for self-destruction: Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other

By Katharine Coldiron.

 Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other (Dzanc Books, 2018)

What separates a diary from a chronicle? Is it a feeling of intimacy? The presence of shortcuts taken by the writer, who knows her own life and does not require explanations of familiar people or places? Is it a mood? Or could it be that reflection and analysis, an ability to process the events, is missing from a diary but present in a chronicle?

I puzzled over this distinction many times as I read Elle Nash’s novel, Animals Eat Each Other, as I marvelled at its odd, wry chapter titles and the economy of its language, as I fretted over its obsession with obsession and the avoidable mistakes the narrator kept making. Nash is the author of a handful of chapbooks and an editor at Witch Craft Magazine and Hobart, but this is her first novel. The book feels like a diary, told as it is with a kind of assumed affinity between the reader and the narrator: as if the narrator knows that the reader will understand and forgive her, no matter what she reveals. But the narrator also performs a great deal of psychological and practical analysis of the novel’s events, which keeps the narrative from meandering. This dimensional analysis recalls Auster at his best, but it accompanies a hair-raising tale of sex and drugs and self-harm and self-hatred well outside the safe boundaries of New York Lit.

The story of the novel is simple: over the course of a summer in Colorado, a young woman meets and becomes sexually involved with a couple, Matt and Frankie (Frances), until various instabilities end the relationship. While the narrator pursues sex, submission, and home tattooing with Matt and Frankie, she also sleeps with her male manager and her female co-worker and tries to wangle information and attention from the husband of another couple. She becomes obsessed with Matt, eventually meeting with him alone, thus violating the rules of the arrangement she and Matt and Frankie have. After the truth comes out, Frankie and Matt both reject her (separately).

The narrator is nameless aside from the name Frankie bestows on her: Lilith. The first wife, the first fornicator. Made of her own stuff, not a man’s. This reference is meaningful, but it stands mostly alone in a novel tied more strongly to the real details of life than to myths or symbols.

Matt and Frankie took me on a ride up to Gold Camp Road in Matt’s brand new Chevy Malibu. We stopped at a gas station first and grabbed snacks, bottles of diet Mountain Dew and ropes of beef jerky. I got ranch-flavored sunflower seeds even though, after a few dozen, the ranch dust flavor started to taste like vomit. I would eat them until the tip of my tongue split with tiny blisters.

At every turn, “Lilith” finds opportunities to harm herself. Her diet is poor, she drinks and does drugs with frightening frequency and volume. She uses cough syrup to go to sleep. She picks at her skin and the pickings scab over and she picks at the scabs. It’s not clear what has led her to the psychological state that nudges her into Matt and Frankie’s lives—that is, what has caused her to harbour such self-loathing, so many unhealthy physical and emotional behaviours—but her self-analysis is crystalline and unemotional.

I took another drink of the shochu, bitter like rubbing alcohol, and wondered if I might go blind, before putting my cigarette out on my forearm.

The pain was sharp and I breathed it in, like lighting illuminating a dark landscape. It was exciting to forget I hated myself so much.

Rarely has self-harm been described with such clarity, but the tone is, let us say, not uplifting. Animals Eat Each Other is a carefully constructed book, a story that performs twists and offers detailed scenes that seem random nonlinear, but are not. The more I revisited the book, the more I admired its care and intention. However, it’s hardly a book for everyone. The events and actions depicted in this novel are almost universally unpleasant, even repellent, and some readers may have difficulty feeling sympathy for Lilith’s self-sabotaging behaviour. For other readers, none of this will be a problem, especially when the narrator’s insights are so exceptional: “What I did then is what I continued to do for years. I chose sex. I chose validation, attention, over any actual chance at love from friends or even boyfriends.”

In fact, something else I began to wonder as I got deeper into the diary/chronicle of this novel is whether a dependency exists between its ugly aspects and its insights. It has plenty to say about the sexual expectations that burden women, the difficulty of making sense of female desire when a woman spends her whole life being told how she’s supposed to look and feel in order to be desirable—not desired, not desiring—during sex. These truths are ugly, but necessary.

I was never taught that women were inherently weaker than men. I had learned it through sex, through Matt’s fist at my neck. Men are taught to manipulate the world around them. Women are taught to manipulate men.

Is it possible that without destabilising two separate marriages, Lilith would not have learned to say this, outright, what so many women feel but cannot verbalise? Would she understand how physical self-harm helps a girl feel better without having harmed herself, without describing it to the reader so viscerally? Perhaps the ugliness of Lilith’s life and the beauty of her insight are two sides of the same coin.

Near the end of the novel, Lilith finally gets what she wants: she has sex with Matt alone, in his car. I read this passage again and again, unsure of its objective meaning, aside from what it meant to me, how I would individually interpret the scene if I were analysing it in a literature class. The condom they are using breaks, and suddenly everything is different. “Matt was still the same person. But there was something that finally felt cold in me, a shutdown.” What they are doing with each other seems less like a game and, suddenly, the obsession and the excitement drain away, leaving behind the possibility that Matt will have knocked up a girl he doesn’t love. Somehow, choking Lilith nearly to unconsciousness, fucking her until she bleeds, provoking Frankie until she is carted off to jail for domestic violence—none of that has the capacity to make them stop or think or behave rationally. But a broken condom does.

This passage reminded me of all the messy sexual encounters in my own life: the unresolved sexual affair with my best friend’s ex-boyfriend; the night I suspect a drunk high school friend might have raped me if I hadn’t smiled, joked, and pushed him ever-so-lightly away; the time I was in bed with a woman and discovered we were being watched through my window by her boyfriend, who was her absent father’s age. The strange, awkward, incredibly painful end of Lilith’s encounter with Matt and Frankie felt much sloppier than a novel’s conclusion theoretically should, and I think that’s why it felt so brilliant, so true. Its lack of resolution felt real enough to get under my skin, not just into my brain.

Perhaps it’s the messiness of this ending that gives me the sense of a shadow story on the other side of this novel. It reminds me of the feeling I had when reading Thicker Than Water, the novel Kathryn Harrison released five years before her memoir The Kiss. Both books cover the same territory (an incestuous affair between a father and daughter), but one is “fiction” and the other nonfiction. Initially, it seems, Harrison needed the scrim of a novel to tell her terrible story, but eventually she found the strength to tell it truly. I wonder if Nash will do the same. I have no proof or personal knowledge that Animals Eat Each Other is the same kind of scrim as Thicker Than Water, but the feeling of a ghost life, a true story moving along beside this novel as it unfolds, is very strong.

This is a slender novel, not even 150 pages, but its emotional territory is enormous and largely unmapped. Karolina Waclawiak’s How to Get Into the Twin Palms is comparable in its claustrophobic focus on a woman sinking instead of rising into young adulthood, but Nash’s insight is superior. Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl offers the reader an equal level of existential self-hatred, the same hole where an identity should be, but its urban setting renders foreign to many readers what’s familiar in Nash’s novel. The approach of quarter-life for Millennial women turned out a lot of horrifying stories in the late nineties and early two-thousands (I can tell you a few myself), and these are just beginning to be tapped for literary inspiration. The diaries/chronicles of those stories are finally being written. I can’t wait to read more of them, especially if they’re as expertly written as Animals Eat Each Other.


Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., The Guardian, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator. Full disclosure at kcoldiron.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 28th, 2018.