As a cisgender white male, I am least interested in what cisgender white males have to say. Too often, too many suck the oxygen out of discourse leaving no space for others to speak and reducing everything down to another version of mansplaining. Their work seems to be in service of shaping the world in their image alone, working to cling onto power even though their relevance continues to shrink. I realize that I am speaking in broad terms, generalizing all straight white men (and I am not trying to evoke a response of #notallmen, because, of course). I am thinking of the man who thought to explain the importance of Rebecca Solnit’s book to her without realizing she was the author; I am thinking of politicians that deem it their place to tell BIPOC demonstrators what they should be satisfied with as they protest for their right to a life free from systemic racism and terror; the men who throw tantrums at having to wear face coverings in the thick of a pandemic, and question the push for vaccinations under the guise of “my body my choice”—oblivious to their inane irony. I do understand that there is also a bit of irony in my argument: I am, after all, afforded this space and asking you to listen to what I have to say. But I would like to think it comes from a place of listening first before speaking, because that’s what we need to do: listen.
I am interested in what a writer like Lisa Taddeo has to say, what she has to tell us with her debut novel Animal. By all indications—the book jacket, the blurbs, the marketing—Animal is a feminist revenge killing tale. To a certain extent, it is, but it also feels reductive to label Animal as such. Yes, there is revenge, there is a reckoning, and there is a killing, but they seem secondary. Unlike other pieces of pop culture and art that revel in the what (the violence, the rage, the revenge), Animal is concerned with the why—it is a novel that is concerned with making us aware of all the reasons the what happens.
The novel follows Joan as she moves from New York to Los Angeles after her older, married, boss and lover shoots himself in front of her. At the time of the shooting, she is having dinner with a new older, married lover. Joan describes herself with a single word: “depraved.” But she refuses to be classified as a victim: “The deprivation has been useful to me[…] But I have survived the worst. Survivor is the second word I’d use.” Joan lost both parents to a tragedy when she was ten, and she unfurls past moments as she is reminded of them in the present story. These past recollections allow for a new understanding, a new way of seeing the events she is going through and for a kind of Mobius strip narrative. Through this unfurling and wrapping we see a life marked by sexual violence, assault, men with rape in their eyes, and so many of the “smaller” traumas that we often don’t consider.
The suicide is the novel’s inciting incident—it’s the occasion for Joan to tell her story. And it’s the thing that leads her in search of a woman named Alice, who she thinks can aid in making sense of events in her past and how they have shaped her present. Alice, like many of the other characters in the novel, is an archetype that exists in service of Joan’s character. Although she is underdeveloped, she is there to allow us to better see and understand Joan—her reason for existing is to allow for Joan’s change. Alice is kind of “basic,” and she is best used when she and Joan are in dialogue. Alice’s questioning of Joan’s past gives her the space to be vulnerable, the space to consider the mistreatment that, before, Joan might have considered her fault.
Just past the halfway point of the book, Joan’s aging Alzheimer’s-riddled landlord, Leonard, needs to confess, needs to talk, needs to explain, something to Joan regarding his late wife and their troubles in having a child. He also shares his thoughts on different types of women: “Biology is enigmatic but deliberate, it selects some for procreation and others it marks for a different path. Women like you are necessary to let off the steam. To depressurize the cabin.” Listen to how men regard women (on TV, in film, during press conferences). Women are either the madonna or the whore, the wife or the mistress. Joan hisses back, “Women like me are good for men to fuck when they’re not ready for babymaking with good Midwestern girls like Lenore.” Joan has always seen herself as the “whore”—rather that’s what men have always seen her as, told her she was, and what she perceived the world saw in her: “I’ve been called a whore. I’ve been judged not only by the things I’ve done unto others but, cruelly, by the things that have happened to me.” Leonard can be read as a stand-in for all the straight, affluent, white men who tell women what they should be, how they should be. Men that are always talking, controlling, dictating the kind of moral code others should live by as they do the opposite.
In her book-length essay I Hate Men, Pauline Harmange writes that she “was fed up of men’s apathy and general lack of interest when it comes to women’s rights.” There is a kind of existential unease embedded in being a woman: how do I look? How/where can I be safe? Are men capable of being decent, good? Reading Animal, these ideas are impossible to miss—they should be impossible to miss in the real world, as well. It’s easy to say the audience for a book like Animal is other women—women who can see themselves in the sexual politics of the novel: the everyday ogling and harassing, indignities suffered during the most banal of activities, like going to a farmer’s market. But maybe the audience is—or should be—men. Like Harmange, Taddeo is fed up, and she is telling us to listen, pay attention, that our actions, our looks, our words mean things, have consequences. Animal is a book less about the enacting of female rage and revenge and more about showing us all the terror and microaggressions that build to a tipping point—from sexual assault to mansplaining; from instantaneous, life-changing trauma to slowly being boiled alive in lukewarm water.
By Lisa Taddeo
Avid Reader Press
Published June 8, 2021
Brock Kingsley is a writer and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere.