BookBrowse Reviews The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

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The Animators

A Novel

by Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker X
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2017, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2017, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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A funny, heartbreaking novel of friendship, art, the secrets we keep and the burdens we shed on the road to adulthood.

Very few novels can handle multiple themes with the seamless grace that moves beyond a plodding and studied dexterity. That The Animators does so with ease is even more commendable given that this brilliant book is a debut.

The titular "animators" are Sharon Kisses and Mel Vaught, friends who meet at Ballister, a posh private college in upstate New York. In a milieu where their peers talk about skiing in Aspen and summers in the Hamptons, Sharon and Mel, two scholarship kids from broken families, find each other through their shared love of old-time animated cartoons and become besties. "You're good people," Mel tells Sharon after she learns of her friend's east Kentucky vintage and the fact that Sharon is at Ballister on the "Poor Appalachian Kid" scholarship.

After graduation, Mel and Sharon make for a powerful dynamic duo, their markedly different real-life personas fluidly complementing each other's artistic strengths on the sketched page. "Mel likes the intimacy of what we do, of placing herself at the center of what we make. I love the work for the opposite reason: for the ability it gives me to abandon myself, to escape the husk of my body and fly off into the ether," says Sharon, who narrates the novel. Their professional association only serves to cement their friendship. "She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen," Sharon says of Mel. "It was enough to indebt me to her forever." This one quote succinctly encapsulates the relationship's dynamic: Sharon, who is straight and coming from a place of low self-esteem, finds safe harbor in lesbian Mel's outward bravado and swagger.

After years of living on ramen, Mel and Sharon become cult celebrities, winners of a $35K grant for their first full-length feature, Nashville Combat, an animated movie modeled after Mel's own life in rural Florida. The central character in the film is based on her mom, a convict whom Mel broke ties with many years ago. "Nashville Combat rides the line between memoir and fiction; we used a facsimile of Mel's mom, a her-but-not-her, as the movie's focus, though it's understood that this particular line between fiction and reality is all but nonexistent."

This brings us to the central thesis of the novel: while the overarching and incredibly well-detailed storyline is about Mel and Sharon's strong friendship, The Animators really addresses the definition of art, about whether we truly own the authorship to our own stories. "I had chosen art because I needed something to make use of the bright lights that had existed in my head for as long as I could remember, my fervent, neon wish to be someone else," Sharon says. That "someone else" she is so desperately trying to become takes on increasing significance when Sharon's murky past comes into sharp focus. Which parts of Sharon's narrative are fair game for use in their next documentary? "Childhood is pretty much ground zero for stories, right?" Mel asks, indicating that one's life is indeed legitimate currency. But that lens can grow cloudy pretty quickly as Mel and Sharon soon find out. While art can be black and white, real life is much more complicated.

David Sedaris, an essayist and humorist, who often uses his large family as a treasure trove of stories, ran into trouble for writing about his sister's suicide. Similarly, The Animators asks: What burdens and responsibilities to the supplementary characters in our lives does the memoirist bear?

It's the question that will linger long after you've put down this sharp, biting and immensely gratifying novel. Filled with crisp dialog, ("What did Chester Molester over there say to you?" asks Mel when Sharon is approached by a shady man at a highway restaurant), gorgeously crafted sentences, and humor and heart-wrenching tragedy, this is one book that is sure to win rich accolades. Given that this is author Kayla Rae Whitaker's debut, I would get in on the ground floor so you can watch her career flourish – as it surely will after The Animators.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in February 2017, and has been updated for the September 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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