Book Review

For the people who do not inhabit them, islands have always only represented either a fantasy or a nightmare. Islands are unmoored from the laws and mundane moralities of the continent. That is, to the landlocked imagination, the point of them. This has been true in literature, in works from The Tempest to Joan Didion’s famous dispatch from the Royal Hawaiian. It’s also true of our contemporary politics. As the creep of apocalypse encroaches on the modern life and the modern psychology, islands have come to promise both an escape from the effects of climate change and late capital, as evidenced by the billionaire bunkers currently pocking the landscape of New Zealand and the accumulated detritus of these catastrophes materialized, as in the case of the Pacific garbage island twice the size of Texas.

A recent novel threads together both of these real-life island archetypes and unspools them. In Pip Adam’s The New Animals (Dorothy 2023), set over the course of one night in the milieu of an Auckland fashion studio circa 2016, a character leaves her life as an affluent makeup artist behind and swims out, through the Pacific ocean, to the island of plastic floating in the sea. She scavenges the amphibian heap for food and water and waits for what she sees as the inevitable arrival of all the other refugees of a sinking world. This sequence, the novel’s conclusion, is neither hopeful nor condemnatory, and it demonstrates the unsettling ambiguity of the island as autonomous zone. It obliges the reader to consider the efficacy of any solution to the climate crisis that advocates a way out, any solution that teases the seductive fallacy that we are not all in this together.

The first half of The New Animals suggests little of this insular turn—at least, not explicitly. The protagonist of the novel’s opening section is Carla, a middle-aged hairdresser who works on something like a freelance basis for a fashion studio founded by three young men from wealthy families. Carla has recently returned from a ten-year sojourn, and no one, or so we are led to believe, knows where she has gone during her absence. She left behind her best friend Duey, a stunningly attractive stylist whose pronouns fluctuate throughout the novel, with whom she once spearheaded a hair salon, and she returns to reduced circumstances—precarious work, strained relationships, and a tiny studio apartment she shares with a volatile female pit bull named Doug, who Carla locks in the bathroom, and who threatens to break out at any moment and wreak revenge for her prolonged confinement.

Indeed, there seems to be a sense, for all of the novel’s characters, human and animal, that the walls are closing in. Time is running out; their world is changing around them. The constraint that drives the conflict in the first section of the book is the sudden decision, made by one of the fashion company’s trust fund founders during an evening planning session, to hold the photoshoot announcing their new line the following morning, despite having no contact with one of the models and almost none of the featured clothing prepared. His decision induces a feeling of urgency and an imperative, for the women who work for him, to make do with what they have. It’s a scarcity mindset that structures their life outside the studio, too. “Everywhere was expensive in Auckland,” Carla notes at one point, “when she got back.” Gentrification has spread, houses are being carved up into flats, tiny rooms. “It felt like the end,” Duey thinks to herself, alone in her apartment, “They’d all be underwater, soon enough. There was nothing anyone could do about it. She could have recycled the containers from dinner—but recycling was just relocating.” Claustrophobia, a closed system with no release. Another character reflects: “Everything she saw made her feel she needed some space.”

This last personage is Elodie, the makeup artist for the fashion line and the sometimes lover of not only its male founders but also of Carla, who, we finally learn, revealed to only Elodie the place where she had gone during her lost decade: the island of plastic floating in the sea. Elodie follows the path that Carla has dictated to her in the early morning hours before she is scheduled to appear at the photoshoot, Carla’s dog in tow. Elodie will never make it to the gig. She seeks an escape from the materialism, the competitiveness, the inauthenticity that poison her life on land and for which the fashion industry acts as a synecdoche. She wants a way out.

Here’s where The New Animals becomes truly strange, and where its themes, unmoored from real estate and from realism, grow bare and wild. Elodie’s passage into the ocean is not written with a moony, wet-eyed romanticism—Adam makes no essentialist metaphor between her character’s female body and the watery expanse. Instead, Elodie’s journey is in equal parts brave and brutal and forces her to replicate many of the same patterns of violence that characterize life back in terrestrial society.

Adam has invoked, throughout her presentation of the fashion industry, its cruel instrumentalization of creaturely life in the forms of fur and leather, and Elodie engages, too, in the unethical treatment of animals. Doug the pit bull, liberated from Carla’s bathroom only to become a kind of spirit guide impressed into Elodie’s voyage into the sea, cannot keep up with the human woman in the water and drowns. Elodie comes across a boat full of corpses and strips one of its wetsuit. “The wetsuit was on her and was hers,” she tells herself. “It had been there and she had had the means on that day, at that time, to take it, and it was hers now. Wasn’t that how things worked? Wasn’t that the way the whole system was placed? If you had the means, you could have it. If you didn’t have the means, you had to change things around you until you did have the means. That was how it worked.” When, finally, she arrives on the plastic island, it is the very waste of consumerism that will now keep her alive. She will wear the cast-off clothing that has collected here, she will construct a home from packing polystyrene and single-use beverage bottles. She becomes “the coloniser of this new land”—instead of changing things around her when she had the chance, she has fled here, to this gyre where capitalism collects, in order to do them all over again.

This is the pathology of the island. New Zealand, the home that Elodie left behind, is an island too, and it is one that many people from larger continents, who have the means, have come to see as an oasis, an Eden into which they can reintroduce the sins that plagued them where they came from. Instead of investing their resources to improve the places where they are, figures from Peter Thiel to Sam Altman have poured millions into buying up land in the small oceanic nation as a ward against future catastrophe. (Although, as recently as 2022, Thiel’s bunker construction plans were rejected by the New Zealand government). This “is the role that New Zealand now plays in our unfurling cultural fever dream,” writes a reporter for The Guardian: “an island haven amid a rising tide of apocalyptic unease.”

In the final pages of Pip Adam’s book, in which Elodie becomes a kind of aquatic predator, ripping fish apart with her teeth and feeling the salt of the water slough away her skin, she transforms herself into the new animal of the novel’s title. “Humans were stupid,” she thinks to herself, as she swims up alongside a pod of whales. And yet, all the characters of the novel want food and shelter, they worry about reproduction, they use intricate social signals like body language and decoration to indicate their position in a group. When the seas warm and the waters rise, they will, like the fish in the ocean, find their way of life threatened. They will embark on new migration patterns, they will find it more difficult to breathe. Perhaps, The New Animals ultimately suggests, Elodie would have done better to stay where she was, in her world, and remember that she was, like the rest of us, an animal all along.

About the Reviewer

Griffin Reed is a writer originally from St. Louis and currently living in Chicago. She's the Managing Editor of Boulevard.