Waiting to be desired: women in a Nw York bar. Credit: Frances Roberts /Alamy

Lisa Taddeo’s ferocious first novel lacks humanity

The narrator of Animal is obsessed by her own depravity
July 19, 2021

Joan, the unlovable narrator of Lisa Taddeo’s ferocious first novel, is obsessed by her own depravity. A traumatised childhood has led her to become, she says, a “whore,” a “succubus,” a “sort of Frankenstein’s monster.”

Joan relentlessly craves sexual interest from men. She drinks Bloody Marys and eats steak tartare in fancy bars, waiting to be desired. “I couldn’t accept someone’s help without subjugating myself in a sinister, sexual way,” she tells us. The world she inhabits is a caricature of gendered cruelty. Men are leering, adulterous monsters: “He was picking a pimple on his chin and staring at me. There are a hundred such small rapes a day.” Women are wronged and desperately vengeful. The novel teems with acts of brutality. “I drove myself out of New York City where a man shot himself in front of me. He was a gluttonous man and when his blood came out it looked like the blood of a pig.”

Taddeo’s celebrated 2019 non-fiction book Three Women reported in detail on her subjects’ sexual lives with a bleak honesty that felt necessary in the wake of #MeToo. Her writing also bites here, packed as it is with wry observations and aphorisms. (“He was worried about air conditioners but that is how all old people end. More surely than we fly toward death, we go to parsimony.”) The coyote-filled Los Angeles desert, “the kind of hot that kills the old,” is starkly painted. Painful memories hinted at from the beginning are intercut with the present, and mysteries slowly unravel.

It is compelling until about two-thirds of the way through. Then the deliberate hollowness of the characters—especially Joan, who never seems to do anything but eat raw meat and think about sex and murder—becomes frustrating. The unceasing savagery feels overloaded. You start to wonder: must every character commit or suffer a terrible atrocity?

Animal has been compared to Bret Easton Ellis’s serial killer satire American Psycho for its portrayal of sadistic hatred of the opposite sex. It’s certainly acutely intelligent, and sometimes shocking. But its impact would have been greater with a little less violence, a little more nuance and a little more humanity.

Animal by Lisa Taddeo (Bloomsbury, £16.99)