The Northern Quarter, Friday, October. Tyler and I had gone drinking after our shifts. By 8pm we were ten drinks in, wedding-drunk and almost dancing. Over by the bar I saw him stirring his drink. It wasn’t the kind of place you stirred your drink (no ice, no fruit, no straws of dubious cleanliness) so I knew something was up. After I’d been watching for a few seconds he looked at me and back to his drink. Another two seconds, me, his drink.
Tyler was sitting next to me, her head drooping as she looked at her phone. A few feet away, the sound periodically blunted by gyrating bodies, ‘She’s a Rainbow’ by World of Twist belted out from a bass speaker.
‘Tyler,’ I shouted over the music, ‘do you fancy a shot?’
‘Tequila,’ she said without looking up. ‘I had too much sambucca on Tuesday, I can still feel it coating my tonsils. And he’s gay but go for your life.’
commentary: Animals is narrated by Laura: she and her friend and landlady Tyler are hovering round 30, doing dead-end jobs, and spend every weekend (and some weekdays) getting trashed on drink and drugs, going to clubs and parties, taking whatever life sends along. Both are smart (well…) and educated – they have just hung on after graduating, never looking for more in life.
But Laura is engaged – her fiancée Jim used to match her for drinking but has now given up, and wants to think about their future together. Tyler hates the idea of losing her partner-in-crime, and the book details increasingly mad moments where Laura parties hard and stupidly with Tyler, then rushes to try to make Jim happy.
The book is extremely well-written, and very funny and clever, and very authentic-seeming. It’s also wince-making as you watch Laura mess up over and over. I am full of admiration for Unsworth.
But – it is completely lacking in any surprises. Given that opening setup, every single stage of the plot is entirely predictable. Once I started reading, the trajectory seemed glaringly obvious, and although we were shown increasingly inventive ways of living a dissipated life, there wasn’t any way out. It wasn’t as if it was going to end up that this lifestyle was in any way good, beneficial, creditable, sustainable. The book has been described as an ode to friendship – and while, again, the description and dialogue of Tyler and Laura’s interactions are brilliant and convincing and funny: well, the relationship surely is toxic and dysfunctional and not doing either of them any good. There really isn’t any way round that, in terms of a novel? The final glimpse we see of Tyler hammers that home. And I think in the end I liked Jim more than the author did. But I could have written on a slip of paper, as I reached page 20, what I thought the final 20 pages would show.
But what a fabulous writer Unsworth is, so accomplished and readable and clever – I look forward to more books by her….
The title (I read in a review) comes from a 1950 poem by blog favourite Frank O’Hara poem, see website here.
Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth
it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners
the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water
I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days
-- a stunning poem, and one of the best matches of epigraph to book that I have ever come across.