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Excruciatingly Good

November 5, 2012
"Charlotte Wood" "Animal People"

Charlotte Wood (Image from author’s website)

Charlotte Wood, Animal People, 2011

‘Loser’ is an ugly word derived from an ugly idea – that life is about winning and losing. In Animal People the word is used against the protagonist, Stephen. In the past he would have been called a ‘no-hoper’, which somehow seems a kinder epithet.

Stephen’s life is going nowhere – he lives in squalor in a drab flat, works as a kitchen hand in a grubby kiosk at the zoo, and has no people skills. He often says the wrong thing so that others misunderstand him and take offence, even though he is trying to be kind or sympathetic. He feels unable to connect to either people or animals.

The narrative follows him through one calamitous day. In the morning, the “acres of the day unrolled before him: all the different kinds of disappointment he would be, all the various areas of his failure.” He has only one thing of value – his relationship with the warm-hearted Fiona. But he believes he does not belong in her life, that all the people around her despise him and soon she must realise that he is not right for her. He plans to break off the relationship later that day, thereby eliminating the only bright spot in his life.

At first I was puzzled about what Fiona sees in Stephen, but as I met the other people in her life – her parents, ex-husband, brother and sister-in-law – I understood. Unlike them, Stephen tries to be kind. Perhaps Robert Dessaix was right when he said that kindness is more important than love.

As the day progresses Stephen is swamped by one humiliation after another, building up to the heights of ignominy. This became so painful that I almost stopped reading. I should finish that book, I would think, but then pick something else to read. Paradoxically, this was the result of Charlotte Wood’s skill. We are in Stephen’s head for the entire book, the whole day, and she makes his relentless succession of misfortunes totally believable. She takes us into his miserable mind in a way that makes us identify with him, to experience empathy and suffer with him. She achieves this through her artistry, but I think it helps that there is something of Stephen, parts of one or more of his failings, in all of us. Because of this empathy, I felt traumatised as he is propelled from one disaster to the next. I am filled with admiration for a writer who can accomplish this. It hurt, but I liked it.

At the Byron Bay Writers Festival, Charlotte Wood and Gail Jones probed the assumptions underlying the word ‘loser’. They agreed that novels can counteract the categorical denunciations of mass culture and retrieve people from the labels they have been given. There is a moral quality to reading and writing, Wood said, but it can’t be a preaching quality. And portraying particularities makes it impossible to preach. Animal People is a demonstration of what she meant.

Reading the book was excruciating, but I’m glad I did. When I recover, I might even attempt one of Charlotte Wood’s earlier novels.

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