By Kayla Rae Whitaker
Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel’s pace and attitude share the hyped up speed and fervor of the central characters, Mel(ody) Vaught and Sharon Kisses (two very character-fitting names, incidentally). The novel often veers into wild melodrama and periodically delivers unexpected startling twists and revelations, one of which the character Sharon should have had at least an inkling about, given what she does for a living, observing and filtering the world and then rendering the result into offbeat animated films. Weaknesses for sure, but more than offset by the novel’s strengths: a penetrating peek into the creative process, a revelatory view on how people collaborate to produce memorable art, and the toll it can take on relationships, personal integrity and ethics, not to mention the general physical health of the creators. It’s for this that many will find Whitaker’s The Animators infinitely fascinating and rewarding.
Mel and Sharon click as a team while at a prestigious college in its top-notch visual arts program. They share backgrounds difficult in their own ways and they work in different ways, as well, which play to each other’s strengths: Mel is a creative furnace blasting out an endless stream of ideas, while Sharon’s better at transforming the ideas into concrete form. Both, when we meet them, are living life to the hilt, meaning a bohemian existence packed solid with sex (women for Mel; men for Sharon), booze, and drugs.
After much hard work, they finally breakthrough with their first real moneymaker and fame builder, a story based on Mel and her prostitute, druggie mother’s life titled “Nashville Combat.” Then Mel’s mother dies and they travel to Florida where she must identify the body. There a stroke fells Sharon. From then on, Mel works to help Sharon not only recover physically but also pushes her to get back to work. Self-doubt consumes Sharon, especially as it relates to her role in the partnership of Vaught and Kisses.
Recovery takes them to Kentucky, to Sharon’s home to visit a family, and a mother, from whom she’s estranged. Here Sharon must confront a traumatic incident from her youth, shared with a neighbor boy, Teddy Caudill. Frustrated by home, she and Mel head to Louisville, where they run into none other than Teddy. Sharon and Teddy fall in love, and Sharon and Mel begin to create again, using the ugly incident from Sharon and Teddy’s childhood as the starting point. Because this incident involved Teddy’s father, you can imagine he’s more than a bit sensitive. Later, back home, Sharon learns a truly startling revelation from her mother. Finally, she and Mel retreat back to New York, where they create their second hit animated film based on Sharon and her family. While it should be all happiness motored by the flush and cash of success of their second film, “Irrefutable Love,” it’s not, as more melodrama ensues. Enter Dan.
While the above barebones summary might convey a touch of trashiness, Whitaker elevates her story, well , really, Sharon’s first-person narrative, with plenty of creative exchanges and discussions between the pair, and a vast amount of information on animation, animated film, and the indie scene, all of which save the novel from being a mere potboiler. A good first novel, however maybe not quite as good as some reviews suggest. w/c