You know, the voiceover continues, it would be nice if we were defined, ultimately, by the people and places we loved. Good things. But at the end of the day, there’s the reality that we’re not. Does the good stuff really have the weight that the weird stuff does? What makes the deeper imprint— all the ridges and gathers— on who we are? Do we have a choice?
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker chronicles the relationship between two creative persons as they struggle, both together and apart, to work through and rise above their pasts and how their art proves instruamental in that journey. We meet Sharon at the beginning of her time at prestegious art school which is a drastic and welcomed change from her Kentucky home.
I had chosen art because I needed something to make use of the bright lights that had existed in my head for as long as I could remember, my fervent, neon wish to be someone else.
Sharon meets Mel’s art before she meets her in person and in that work she sees a reflection of her own passion and a shared ambition. Sharon recognizes the deep need for expression and the outlet that art can provide.
When I looked at Mel’s stuff, I felt something different. I didn’t know how to quantify what I was seeing in words, but I could feel it. She was naturally, easily good, and when I saw things she had done, I felt a curiously pleasurable pressure at my middle, something tinged with pain at the edges. It was an expansive, generous feeling. Before I saw her, even, I saw what she did.
Recognizing an equal level of talent, Mel approches Sharon at the end of class and they spend the remainder of that evening relishing in their shared weirdness and forming the bond that launches their success and withstands all the unknown challanges they face as a result, together.
We sank into a cozy little vacuum, Mel and I, watching. I don’t know if it was the cartoons themselves, or watching them with Mel, but that night was the closest I had felt to knowing what I wanted from my life. She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.
Fast-forward ten years and Sharon and Mel are a sucessful animation partnership and the recipients of a prestegious grant for their work on Nashville Combat a raw, in-depth examination of Mel’s adolesence in Florida with her mother and her string of boyfriends. Forced to face the reality of her past bared for all to see, Mel increases her efforts to dull the everpresent ache the birth of this creative work left- the constant reguritation of pain.
It’s all happened so fast, the transition of Mel’s hell-raising from preoccupation to main attraction, that I keep asking myself if I’m not blowing it all out of proportion. If I’m really seeing what I think I’m seeing. But you don’t work with someone for over ten years without getting some overflow, knowing a little of what they know, feeling a little of what they feel, and I can feel the dark rushing at Mel’s center, the guilt that’s gnawing her raw. It rips me in half to see something she loves hurt her so badly. I wonder if this is why we can’t come up with a good idea. If she’s scared to work. And, if she is, what I can possibly do about it.
An unexpected tragedy involving Sharon pulls Mel from her downward spiral, the problems of the present bigger and more threatening. She throws all of her energy into caring for her, as Sharon struggles to regain her life, before.
I used to have such confidence in my mind. I had faith in the life I had created for myself— the serviceable, productive outer persona, and my inner life, the one I could only inhabit in my head. I prided myself on my ability to control the two. Now both have collapsed. I would give anything to be able to speak. To write, to draw. My old self grows faint, moving in and out of darkness.
At Sharon’s bedside night and day, Mel discovers something about Sharon’s past that cracks her wide open. A secret so personal, Sharon struggles to share even with Mel whom she shares every other aspect of her life with. When the story is finally told, the pair do what they do best and they draw, putting into cartoon the trauma of Sharon’s life.
I want to be able to feel this way all the time. To be able to laugh about the things that have happened to me, baggage and all, light and dark. To own it handily enough so that it could be funny and horrifying at once. Maybe this is the idea I’ve been looking for. Maybe this is something close.
Encompassing the entirerity of Sharon’s and Mel’s partnership we see the depth of their stuggle and successes. Whitaker masterfully blends humor, vice and the darkness of th human experience. A surprisingly endearing story is told that is all at once audacious, abrasive and agonizing. The Animators will sink its teeth into you but by then you will be too far gone to notice and when its over the ache will remain long after you’ve read the final page.
I know what Mel and I did with memory. We ran our endurance dry with our life stories, trying to reproduce them, translate them, make them manageable enough to coexist with. We made them smaller, disfiguring them with our surgeries. We were young. We did not know what we were doing.
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A review copy of this title was provided by Random House via Netgalley.