The first chapters of Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel, “The Animators,” seemed less than promising. The setup is a slog, with self-conscious writing and a sense of time muddied by an abundance of retro references and technology.
Then, it got good. Really good, with stakes and suspense and an ease of storytelling that was missing before. I’m not saying you should begin reading at the chapter titled, aptly, “We Have To Start From Wherever We Are,” but that’s where the book takes flight. For the next 300 pages, Whitaker delivers a memorable, sure-handed, and absorbing tale, rife with vivid characters, passionate if frequently toxic relationships, and an insistent question: Who owns the moral right to tell a story borrowed from real life?
To the animation team Vaught and Kisses — that’s Mel Vaught and her irksomely named best friend, Sharon Kisses, the duo at the center of “The Animators” — this is an issue best ignored.
Mel and Sharon grew up in different hardscrabble parts of the South, leveraged their intelligence and skill to escape, then — this is where the novel begins — met at a Northern college. Bound together by their complementary talents and a shared nerd-out passion for cartoons, they move to New York and trail-blaze their way to a measure of fame in a male-heavy creative niche.
Mel is the flashy loose cannon of the two, brilliant but reckless, gregarious yet prone to self-destructive excess. Sharon, the book’s narrator, is the partnership’s dependable steadying hand, at least until a medical crisis that nearly kills her. Their breakthrough success, less than a decade out of school, comes when they plunder Mel’s lurid childhood to make an animated feature, starring an unhinged cartoon version of her mother — renamed, of course, and rendered with just enough squishiness of detail to satisfy the lawyers.
“And what did your mom think about that?” Sharon’s mother asks Mel when she and Sharon arrive on a visit to tiny Faulkner, Ky., that to them is really more reconnaissance mission for a new project than longed-for reunion. As the friends casually eye old family photos and surreptitiously snap the odd picture on a smartphone, they don’t mention that Sharon’s childhood figures heavily in the movie they’re working on.
Toward their families, both of them feel mostly bitterness and blame, with a stiff dose of shame about the dysfunction and lack of cash. There’s not much love mixed in. Mel’s mother is recently dead by then, killed by a fellow inmate in prison, but Sharon’s mom and older siblings seem nice enough up close, even if Sharon can’t quite thaw her heart to them.
One of the few people from Faulkner who retains her affection is Teddy Caudill. He was the beloved boy next door until he moved away to Louisville just before sixth grade, leaving her friendless for the duration. When Mel suggests a road trip to track him down, they both know exactly what they’re doing: A planned scene in the new movie involves him at 9 or 10, showing Sharon a horrifying stash of child pornography he found among his father’s belongings. His father, a molester, later went to prison.
Teddy has worked for 20 years to get past what his father did, and when Sharon meets him again he is a lovely man, a film-obsessed Louisville hipster with a breathtaking gentleness to him. “You look exactly like yourself,” he says on seeing her, and it’s no surprise that they fall fast and hard for each other.
Relative peace, for both of them, seems suddenly within reach. But she doesn’t change her mind about putting his crippling childhood trauma in her movie, and she doesn’t tell him about it, either. It’s outrageously self-absorbed behavior; there’s no credible way to argue a pressing need to tell that story to the world. Cloaking it in fiction doesn’t seem to occur to her. Neither does making the animation but keeping it private.
“We came to mine him for information,’’ Sharon acknowledges, straightforward in her narration if not in her relationship with Teddy. “And when we get what we want, we’ll go back to Faulkner. And when we get what we want from there, we’ll leave Faulkner, too.”
To Sharon and Mel, compartmentalizers extraordinaire, the ideal of artistic honesty excuses even the cruelest, most public betrayals.
Funny thing is, their movie is called “Irrefutable Love,” a title Sharon chooses because that’s what she wants most in the world. With her arrogant, callous, wounded heart, she doesn’t see that both inextinguishable love and unbearable pain have been right in front of her all along. But she will learn. And if you stick with her long enough to get to the good stuff in “The Animators” you will cheer her on.
By Kayla Rae Whitaker
Random House, 384 pp., $27.Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes @gmail.com