Will fame burst the cartoon bubble of two aspiring artists?
Considerable shelf space has been dedicated to the artistic rivalries and collaborations of men: Mozart and Salieri, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Picasso and Matisse. The tension between doing the work and getting the credit — between art and its more elusive cousin, acclaim — is ripe for good storytelling, getting as it does at the passion, jealousy and anxiety that lie in the guts of the creative process. If history is any guide, two geniuses working together in a room is usually one genius too many. When the drama of real human life fuels your art, especially when that art is created in tandem with another person, the line between inspiration and theft is disconcertingly thin.
It is this tension that propels Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel, “The Animators.” Yet unlike the bulk of literature dedicated to the pathos of creative partnerships, the artists at the center of Whitaker’s narrative are, refreshingly, women. Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are native Southerners who grew up poor and find themselves out of place at a snobby liberal arts school in Upstate New York where both are studying fine art. Their friendship takes shape with swift impulsivity: Mel, dryly funny and finely wired, is the natural leader, while Sharon, through whose perspective the story is told, retains a kind of earnest credulity. The girls bond over their shared love of classic Warner Bros. cartoons and the darker elements of alt-comics, and when Mel makes the first of many clearly telegraphed prompts — “Let me know if you ever want to work on something. You know? Like partner up? Do some cartoons?” — their course of action is set.
That course leads, inevitably, to Brooklyn, and one of the converted industrial studio spaces that have — in real life — already begun to disappear. Sha- and Mel take on freelance work, stretch a small inheritance, and survive on convenience-store fare in the grand tradition of starving urban artists. Though their relationship is financially tenuous, it is artistically fecund, producing what we are told is a masterpiece of hand-drawn animation, a fictionalized account of Mel’s childhood called “Nashville Combat.” Accolades and prize money quickly follow, but it is precisely this sudden success — and the invasive press that comes with it — that sends the artists’ friendship spinning off its axis.
It is here, too, that the narrative begins to wobble a little. The urgency with which Sharon and Mel’s friendship is tested by fame, and by the question of whose vision and labor are more essential, is derailed by a sudden health crisis, and then again by the arrival of a childhood friend bearing secrets. The animators discover they have been hiding things from each other, and the uncomfortable proximity of art and life proves shattering.
While the creation of great visual art is terrific grist for prose, the art itself is more difficult to translate. Cartoons rely heavily on movement and timing and visual puns, compounding the novelist’s difficulty. There is probably no compelling way to summarize an animated film. Whitaker, to her credit, tries valiantly, but in the end, the artistic merit of Sharon and Mel’s work must be communicated through minor characters in some rather direct ways. While their partnership, which is at once fervent and wonderfully unsentimental, gives “The Animators” its soul, the closest we get to their films is a kind of narrative closed-captioning, leaving us to guess what all the fuss is about. References to animated cult classics from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s come thick and fast — “Ren and Stimpy,” “The Maxx,” “Fritz the Cat” — but these touchstones blur rather than sharpen the focus. From an artistic standron point, we know what Sharon and Mel like, but we don’t know what they are like.
Nevertheless, the emotional heart of the story — the anxiety, competing passions and need for validation that drive Sharon and Mel’s relationships — is well-wrought and evocative. We get the sense that there are real minds at work. Sharon, for all the comparative innocence she displays at the opening of the book, proves a somewhat unreliable narrator, capable of fibbing to herself, and therefore to us. And while the climax of the story veers into melodrama, it’s rooted in a very real fear that we cannot escape ourselves. Sharon longs to “discorporate,” to leave her body behind, yet the art she sees as her release steadily pulls her back into an insistent, imperfect reality.
THE ANIMATORS By Kayla Rae Whitaker Random House. 372 pp. $27