Last night at Better Read than Dead in Sydney’s Newtown, writer Malcolm Knox launched Charlotte Wood‘s beautiful (inside and out) new novel Animal People. As Malcolm described it, Animal People tells the story of one crap day in an ordinary man’s life, a literary mode which goes back to James Joyce’s Ulysses and his disgruntled Leopold Bloom. In this case, the man is Stephen, the elusive brother from Charlotte’s last novel The Children who acted on his family more like a prickly irritant than a loving son and brother. I was excited when I heard that Stephen was starring in Charlotte’s next novel because I found his aimless hopelessness in The Children intriguing – and for me his ungovernable irritations and their affect on his family were the funniest moments of the novel.
As Malcolm said last night, Charlotte has a wicked, wicked sense of humour – and it’s in full flight in Animal People, which takes us inside Stephen’s dishevelled suburban world and into his complex, confounding relationships with humans, animals and life itself. The driving force of Stephen’s life is to avoid emotional intimacy at all costs. The driving force of his particular day in Animal People is his relentless determination to break up with his girlfriend Fiona, for reasons unknown.
In his opening remarks Malcolm told a story about his wife calling from the house, ‘Bruce, Bruce! Dinner. Bru-uce.’ PAUSE. ‘I mean, MALCOLM! Malco-olm!’ Bruce is a dog. Such slips reminded Malcolm of how close and complex our relationships with animals can be – and as its name suggests, such relationships are explored in Animal People.
But Malcolm then went on to say that he wanted to yell at the radio last week when he heard callers telling Charlotte stories about their pets rather than talking to her about what she was there to talk about – her novel. Because of course Animal People is about SO much more than our connections with animals. As Malcolm put it, in this novel Charlotte has set a mass of butterflies in flight, and seeing it in terms of only one of its elements (our real world pets) is like taking one of those butterflies and pinning it down on a board to examine it. Malcolm would rather watch all the butterflies in flight – and marvel at them and the talent that put them there.
Malcolm said Animal People was his favourite of Charlotte’s four novels (and hoped he didn’t offend the others by saying so). He thinks she’s a novelist at the height of her powers, that she’s got everything exactly right in Animal People, that it’s a novel whose humour and insights would make Jonathan Franzen envious if he read it.
I read Animal People in one weekend and for me it had the intense, sustained poetic focus I usually associate with short stories – and an ending that packed such a punch I was almost winded. In her emotional speech, moved by Malcolm’s high praise and the presence of so many friends, family members and admirers, Charlotte said she now writes only for her readers, for good readers and for truth and beauty. There are many moments of truth and beauty in Animal People. Here’s one of my favourites:
‘She had a held-back quality, a hiddenness, that to Stephen – along with her slender, strong brown arms, the quick, graceful movement of her smooth calves as she walked – was sexy as hell. An old, old lust sprang up in him.’