Kayla Rae Whitaker’s “The Animators”

June 10th, 2017  |  Published in May/June 2017

Zoom to your nearest bookstore or library and get ahold of The Animators, by Kayla Rae Whitaker, as it’s by far the best debut novel of 2017.  Ebulliently written and full of the kind of energy that big cities seem to generate in people,  Whitaker presents two young women, both of whom are from rural backgrounds, who meet at an elite upstate New York university.  Sharon, from rural Faulkner, Kentucky,  is shy and reticent, while Mel (short for Melody) is from somewhere in the backswamps of Florida, and dominates, draws people with her hipness.  They meet in an art class, and begin to work together on projects which will develop into an animation business.  The business partnership and creative interactions between the two women (and a wonderful supporting cast of characters) will last through their early thirties; Mel is a lesbian, Sharon is not. The Animators is, amongst many other things, a superb novel about a friendship between two creative women.  They will use both of their own dubious backgrounds to make the two animated films which dominate the novel (Whitaker’s also a whiz in explaining how contemporary animators work, and how this work gets easier with the advent of new digitalized equipment). As one with little knowledge of this field and minimal interest in same, Whitaker’s achievement is that much greater as she takes us into the heart of the creative process of both individuals, and of each woman separately.   Mel is self-destructive, living in a haze of booze and drugs (when not working); Sharon is the more careful, cautious, conservative of the two.  And Mel has great success in picking up women, Sharon less so with her attempts with men.

Mel and Sharon embark on two road trips, one to Florida, so that Mel can identify the body of her mother, who’s recently been killed in a prison fight.  Mel’s childhood with this mother, who was a hooker, becomes the story of the first animated film.  Sharon’s upbringing in rural Kentucky will become the material for the second film that they make together (to increasing acclaim in the indie animated world).  The heart of the novel focuses on these two trips, the stroke that Sharon has at age 32, while Mel lovingly cares for her through months of rehab, and their creative life in New York when they are working on their films.  Both characters whom Whitaker creates are amongst the most fascinating and well delineated of any characters in any  novels this year.  Each woman brings out the best in the other, and, although they never are partners in the sexual/physical sense, the love between these two women is moving and often funny and so well defined that we are in awe of Whitaker’s enormous talent. And she also writes like an angel.

When Mel and Sharon go back to rural Kentucky, after unlocking a real repressed memory of Sharon’s as a girl, watching them interact with Sharon’s rather bizarre and spiteful family, as they begin to make these people into characters for their film, is completely riveting.  But just as Sharon will grow in stature and mature through her friendship/partnership with Mel, Sharon’s family members will eventually show signs of a maturity that Sharon doesn’t believe possible in them.

The closer the women get to finishing a project, the more Mel begins to act out at all night parties, with all sorts of combinations of drugs and booze, while Sharon prefers to stay in the background. An interview with a cultural critic from NPR is one of the funniest scenes in recent fiction, too.  Whitaker’s energy, alone, will whiz the reader through the novel, which is on the longish side, but doesn’t seem so.  The reader will not be prepared for Mel getting completely out of control, though all the signs are there (as with any friend in trouble, Sharon thinks that Mel is mostly in control of herself, though she isn’t).  Agents, young people who come and work for the two women,  secondary and tertiary characters like the woman in the Florida prison who shows Mel her  mother’s body, are so brilliantly rendered that each becomes a kind of tableau vivant of its own. I admit that Whitaker uses some hipster words with which I am unfamiliar, but that doesn’t matter. And the friendship between Mel and Sharon becomes inextricably linked with their creative processes: that’s what makes The Animators so exceptionally brilliant.  Creativity is often difficult to describe in language–Dana Spiotta is extremely good at this, too–but I’ve never read it as well as I have in The Animators.  

Whitaker manages to make us fascinated by these two millennial women, no mean feat as the millennial generation often seems spoiled and whiny, entitled. There’s no better novel around describing the creative inner lives and processes of two millennial women, and I urge readers to get their hands on The Animators; it’s a phenomenal book. I can’t wait to see what Kayla Rae Whitaker (who currently lives in Louisville) comes up with next: she’s a major talent  in the making, and an utter delight to read.

–Daniel Brown

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