As Animal begins, its narrator, Joan, has driven cross-country to Los Angeles, where she’s rented a ramshackle three-storey house in a compound in Topanga Canyon. Joan is defined by the trauma of her past, which has left her, she tells us, “depraved”. Thus, she’s soon involved with two men who live in the compound; the young and beautiful River and the senile, lascivious Leonard, each of whom will decisively affect her future. But she has really come west to track down Alice, a woman with a mysterious connection to her past. Their meeting will trigger the final catastrophic act of Joan’s depravity and the revelation of the childhood horrors that set her on this path.
Lisa Taddeo became a literary star for her nonfiction bestseller Three Women, which was acclaimed for its radical candour in discussing sex. In fictional mode she’s no less frank, but here the focus is the link between trauma and sexual violence. Joan compulsively sexualises every interaction, then feels violated when men respond. There are several scenes of rape, and the abiding atmosphere is one of hostile obscenity. Even a scene at an outdoor market is dominated by a leering cashier: “He was picking a pimple on his chin and staring at me. There are a hundred such small rapes a day.” Animal is about a world that concentrates sexual abuse on the vulnerable, then treats their resulting dysfunction as an invitation to more sexual abuse.
The idea is boldly handled, and the writing is often exceptionally good. The book is packed with elegant observations, as when a very young girl pulls out a gun: “It was marvelous in its smallness and blackness and made her seem like an adult.” Many scenes have a hallucinatory wildness, and Taddeo is remarkably sharp on the politics of attraction. Joan says of a waitress: “She was the kind of simple, inarguable pretty that I had never been. I was sexually attractive. Sometimes other women didn’t see it.” Here, in three sentences, we get not only everything we need to know about Joan’s appearance, but about her idea of herself. Taddeo also has a penchant for strange images, as when she has Joan see “ant-colored hairs piercing through her white skin”. These can be distracting and even confusing, but whatever the style is, it’s never boring.
Unfortunately, the novel goes fatally awry in a couple of significant ways. First, the character of Joan is radically one-dimensional. She’s a victim of sexual trauma who has no interests apart from sex and trauma. She never reads a book, watches TV, listens to music, or does anything practical. She has no memories of anything but trauma and sex. There are various scenes at her past jobs, but we never find out what she did there – or rather, all she seems to have done there was have unwanted sex. Even her parents are insistently sexualised, although they died when she was 10; she repeatedly pictures her mother’s “white seventies breasts” and is reminded of her father every time she gets sexually aroused.
The second problem is that the plot has a careening outlandishness that is often incoherent and always at odds with its serious content. Every choice the characters make is perverse, and much of the dialogue consists of unmotivated confessional speeches in which people say things like: “I climbed the trampoline and tackled the American Indian girl like a wolf.” Many of the traumatic events are gratuitously bizarre and seedy; they seem chosen to titillate, not to ring true. There are also far too many such events. Not one, but two, people with disabilities are murdered; in an aside, we’re told that a walk-on character is going to be killed in a plane crash entirely extraneous to the plot. This excess is probably intended as a kind of Los Angeles gothic, but Taddeo simply doesn’t have enough control to make it work, and it ultimately borders on parody. The narration also wanders erratically; Joan can’t get through a traumatic scene without being distracted by memories of other traumatic events, until the hopping from misery to atrocity just becomes confusing.
Surprisingly often, when I give a book a negative review, it’s with a painful sense of the book it could have been, if it had had one more substantial rewrite. I felt this more with Animal than I have with almost any other book. It’s not a bad book, not really; it’s a great book that swallowed a ton of terrible ideas it couldn’t digest. Even in this state, it has more intelligence than many novels I would wholeheartedly recommend. It’s ambitious and abrasive and unsparing. It has its own aesthetic and its own worldview. But as it stands, it’s not a great novel; it’s a great missed opportunity.
Animal is published by Bloomsbury Circus (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.