The Animators is Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel, and it’s hard not to feel jealous that someone so young could create such a darkly complex but sometimes funny novel that often went places I didn’t expect. It’s the story of Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses, who meet as scholarship kids their first week at a pricey liberal arts college in upstate New York and bond over their love of comics and animation as well as their working-class backgrounds.
Narrated by Sharon, the story jumps quickly from the women’s initial meeting at school to a point ten years later, when their creative partnership is just starting to pay off commercially. Their animated film, Nashville Combat, is garnering a lot of critical acclaim and they’ve just won a prestigious fellowship that will fund their next project. Mel is the wild one whose energy, moods, and dark history seem to be the creative spark to the partnership while Sharon is the one who holds things together for the pair, both artistically and in other ways. Though stories of the tortured artist can feel cliché, this novel suggests that place and pain and the past are fuel for art but also that art might be one way to deal with those things. It also raises difficult questions about who is affected when artists use their own lives as the raw material.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot because I think part of the experience of this novel is following the journey of these two women without a clear sense of where they or the story is going. Though I can’t vouch for the details about art and animation, the story of this relationship between two complex women feels real and it may break your heart.