about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Animals Eat Each Other
A Review of Animals Eat Each Other
by Elle Nash

Spencer Dew

“I felt that I had peaked at eighteen, and nineteen was now just the slow slope downward,” our protagonist muses, before lighting a cigarette, ripping off a scab, taking a shot, and, while wondering if she might drink herself blind, putting her just-lit cigarette out on her arm. The appeal of Nash’s melodrama is the extent to which we’ve all experienced such feelings, even if we’ve never acted out quite as detailed and theatric a scene. Animals Eat Each Other is a story of that modern American species of late adolescence, the sort that plays out in what is technically young adulthood, wherein desire and loathing, uncertainty and fear mingle into a toxic cocktail, prompting the infliction of pain on others and to one’s self.

Our unnamed narrator still remembers the simple comforts of childhood—sleeping under heavy covers, a parent as something other than a fraught idea—and she is awkward about her own place in the world, physically foremost. She seeks escape from the awkwardness she feels in relation to her body by offering her body to others, by letting that which she is uncertain about become something through which others seek the certainty of possession and—often violent—use.

Neglect has made abuse feel like love, and a world of apparent empty materialism has led our protagonist to squelch—or attempt to squelch—the romanticism that nonetheless literally follows her around: she has the words “hopeless” and “romantic” tattooed on the backs of her thighs, flashing their significance at all the moments when those concepts are most absent as ideals.

Some plot summary: the girl meets a couple, and she has sex with them. The man is a Satanist of the pontificating, LaVey variety. He mansplains Ayn Rand with a cultivated sado-kick and a gender rage gelled into fashionable shape with recourse to “society,” its repressions and constraints. He does things with a knife, to the girl, and he chokes her, and he rehashes some of the duller things that LaVey rehashed (serve yourself; never turn the other cheek). He worships his own ego, or attempts to, in an attempt, more than anything, to build some self-esteem. When he uses others, he does it without even desiring to, maybe out of contempt not for what he objectifies but for himself.

He’s not alone in that, an unacknowledged emptiness demanding to be filled. That’s our heroine, to a T: “I enjoyed so much of the choking, the roughness between us, the bending myself to please him, but also considered that I did not like myself,” she says. “I could not decide if the two situations, my hate for myself and my desire for pain, were related.” What she really wants is a connection—that romantic longing. Hunger, after all, is what unites predators and prey.

Some hunt in packs. The Satanist’s main girl isn’t very nice either, and there’s actually a baby that gets neglected through much of the book. But it’s the narrator (she remains unnamed) whose neglect matters most, and her negotiations of it, whether through self-mutilation or tattooing (which is half an act of “center[ing] who I was or where I’d been” and half a matter of “dry, dull pain . . . my own commitment to be hurt over and over again”). The desire for certain types of pain becomes, for our heroine, a “feedback loop.”

Certain types of pain, in turn, lead to certain pleasures. Our heroine, for instance, experiences, through the pain she chases and needs, a kind of receding: the cruel world withdraws, and she is an embryo again, a yolk inside an egg, a world of one’s own. Such exclusivity is easy enough to achieve by snorting Percocet or through the bludgeoning quick drunk brought on by pounding Monopolowa and Cherry Coke or in the midst of the kind of vehement fucking that draws blood and smears it around.

Such solipsism, however, is the opposite of an actual encounter between people, the sort predicated on recognition of and thus knowledge of each other’s selves. Such encounter depends upon vulnerability. The self takes risks coming out of the egg. Only by understanding oneself as something more than a mere “piece of entertainment . . . a block of text or commercial airspace,” can one be treated by others as something more than that. This is truism, even cliché, but it is also always unknown and unknowable to those eighteen-(or nineteen-)year-olds who pick scabs and burn themselves with cigarettes. Pain is a pain-killer, a pain avoidance mechanism: you opt for one form of controlled pain over another.

In the end, here, of course, there’s a bit of an awakening, some cracks in the eggshell if not an actual hatching. There’s a scene in a Walmart parking lot, the bitterness of an internal sacrifice. “I was thankful to have something like pain to look forward to,” our protagonist declares. She’s unwilling to surrender the bravado that’s kept her together this far. Like I said, we’ve all been there, even if the particular details—the inked words, the poses, the drama—are unique.

Official Elle Nash Web Site
Official Dzanc Books Web Site

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