In the single-page prologue to Elle Nash’s debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other, we meet our unnamed narrator in the midst of a sexual encounter, a knife held to her face while she’s tied to a coffee table. Though initially ambiguous, it soon becomes clear that the startling scene is not a coercion of any kind: “I wanted to be validated, the way everyone does,” she tells us. This will be her obsession throughout the book: a search for affirmation, tangled up in her own complicated desires.
Our narrator is nineteen, newly graduated from high school and working at Radioshack for the summer. She lives in a trailer park in Colorado Springs with her mother, whose Vicodin and Percocet she regularly steals. Her father died from liver complications when she was young, and her mother’s prescriptions are for joint pain, a product of the excess weight caused by antidepressants and anti-insomnia pills. The landscape of her childhood means that bodily decay is never far from her mind: “Every pill or drink I took was a tiny death.”
The novel is interested in not just physical decomposition, but the deterioration of one’s core self. Sex is where these two intertwine. The story hinges on the narrator’s relationship with Matt and Frances, a couple who recruit her to join their sex life. Not far into the novel, our nameless narrator is christened Lilith by Frances (the couple practices Satantism), and far from rejecting this name, Lilith revels in it: “Me as a whole new thing.” This new identity doesn’t smother her—it frees her (at least, temporarily). Throughout the book, Lilith seeks both connection and disconnection through her sexual encounters. Typically, though, it’s not her partner that she’s seeking to engage or disengage; it’s herself. She claims to prefer sex without attachment, such as when she fucks her manager, Sam: “I was more attracted to a person’s interest in me than to the particulars of their personality.” Sex can be an approval stamp of sorts, proof of her own allure. And yet it can also be something more tender, an escape from self-critique, such as when Lilith has sex with her closest friend, Jenny: “for the first time, I felt unjudged.” Her encounters with Matt and Frances, the main focus of the book, are something else entirely, rough and animalistic exchanges that contain a mix of power, pleasure, and pain. As Lilith’s attraction toward Matt grows and she wants to pull him away from Frances (a predictable move that Nash acknowledges as such), she’s drawn in by the permission he gives her to embrace her shadows, an “acceptance of the dark part of myself, the rejection of the light.” Matt is a conduit for her own self-discovery.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this novel is the way Nash is able to not only write believable sexual encounters (there is no cringe-worthy figurative language here), but deconstruct them honestly and astutely. She’s particularly apt at capturing the hollow feeling that can accompany physical intimacy, like when Lilith notes “sex felt like a stand-in for whatever romance was supposed to be.” Nash neither sensationalizes nor romanticizes the unpleasant potential of sex, such as the physical pain Lilith sometimes experiences with Sam because “I would not be quite ready but he would want to start anyway.” Impressively, Nash frequently unpacks such moments, rather than simply leaving them as sharp details. Of her painful encounters with Sam, Lilith shares that “I wanted his attention so badly that I didn’t think I could be picky about the type of attention I received.” Nash is constantly doing the difficult work of untangling the threads of desire and attraction, vulnerability and self-destruction. Her unflinching take on female sexuality is reminiscent of Merritt Tierce’s fierce and brutal book, Love Me Back.
Though Lilith’s seduction of Matt could be seen as an all-too-familiar plot point, Nash keeps things messy by putting the power of the relationship in Frances’s, rather than Matt’s, hands. Matt is sexually dominant but Frances is the one truly in control, resting a hand on Lilith’s thigh as Matt fucks her, whispering into his ear what exactly she wants him to do to Lilith. In one particularly memorable scene, Frances puts a collar on Lilith and walks her through Wal-Mart like a dog, and instead of resisting, Lilith complies, because “Her approval was more seductive than my shame.” I won’t spoil how the relationship among the three falls apart (something you learn will happen on page ten), but Frances is the threat, not her boyfriend.
At a slim 128 pages, the novel moves quickly. This is a taut examination of sex and desire, but despite its page count, the narrative sometimes feels static. Late in the book, Lilith looks at Matt and sees that “he had a woman, a kid, responsibilities . . . He had places he was going to, a future. These were things I did not have.” This sense of stagnancy can be felt particularly at the end of the novel, where Lilith’s patterns feel expected: she sleeps with an ex from high school and Sam’s roommate, and continues to numb emotions with alcohol and painkillers. Her obsession with Matt remains, but more interesting than the events that unfold are Lilith’s ruminations on their relationship: “Maybe I was the wrong type of woman, the type that did not deserve to be treated with such tenderness but with the full force of sexualized violence, or a violence men reserved for other men.” She interrogates her desire for pain, wondering if it’s linked to “my hate for myself,” and for the first time, it seems like Lilith might shed her name. Nash is an acute observer of human appetites, and Animals Eat Each Other establishes her as a voice on the rise.
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Publication date: April 3, 2018
Reviewed by Alina Grabowski