Exit West
  • March 16, 2018

    Opening Round

  • Mohsin Hamid

    1Exit West
    4The Animators

    Kayla Rae Whitaker

  • Judged by

    Patrick Hoffman

The Animators

It’s hard, going into the Tournament, to not judge a book by its coverage. When I started Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel, The Animators, all I could remember from a months-ago NPR story was the title. I purposefully avoided the back flap (no spoilers!) but couldn’t avoid the text on the cover, where Elle called it “compulsively readable” and the Guardian mentioned “smart women.”

Patrick Hoffman is a private investigator and author of the novels The White Van and Every Man a Menace. He lives in Brooklyn. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I am good friends with Rachel Khong.”

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, in contrast, had coated my filter bubble. I’d listened to the author’s Fresh Air interview; I’d seen it on all the top 10 lists. I knew his book was about refugees from an unnamed city in an unknown country that resembled Syria or Iraq. It seemed this might be an unfair fight: on the one hand, Refugees, on the other, Animators.

The Animators opens in a fictional liberal arts college called Ballister. Landing in those the first few pages I thought to myself, Shit, I don’t want to read a book about hipster college students. That line of thinking was misguided, though. The book quickly leaves the college and broadens widely. It’s a book about love, art, creation, story-ownership, success, friendship, sexual trauma, family, and more. It is a book brimming with ideas, and with its racing prose it is, indeed, compulsively readable.

The novel follows the relationship between the two eponymous animators, Sharon Kisses and Melody Vaught. They meet in college and become lifelong creative partners and successful filmmakers. They are, to put it mildly, obsessed with each other. The story is told from Sharon’s perspective. We spend a lot of our time watching Mel and worrying about her. Mel is a handful. She drinks and drugs and hooks up with all the women she can. She’s a mess. Here is a typical description of Mel arriving for an important Fresh Air type interview:

I turn and spot Mel weaving across Sixth Avenue. When I see the screwy little tilt to her head, my throat ices over with dread. She’s fucked up, maybe a third loosey-goosey. But she’s upright. And spruced: sneakers unscuffed, vest buttoned, a mid-eighties blazer of the Brooks Brothers variety. The shadow of a black eye traces the left side of her face.

Mel’s a mess, but she’s also a genius. One of the many impressive things about this book was Whitaker’s ability to convincingly portray the two friends’ artistic ability. The descriptions of their animated movies could easily not work, but they do. The scenes of Mel and Sharon working on their movies not only felt real, they were inspiring. They made me want to work—and I am very lazy. 

The Animators is well plotted. A lot happens, and what happens is truly and consistently surprising. Time after time, I found myself blind to oncoming twists—and outlining the movements of the story here would be a disservice to the book. Suffice to say, two creative partners partner, years and years pass, they become successful, they take a long road trip, very bad things happen, the past comes back, they make a movie that puts the seemingly ignored Sharon Kisses at its center and sacrifices a few lambs on its way, a lover or two gets in between them, and they make art. The book is much more brilliant than that.

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $3 and Field Notes will match your $3 and donate $6 to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

At its core it is about the partnership between two women. They are partners in their work, but they’re also, for better or worse, partners in life. They are best friends.

It is a beautiful thing to behold.

Exit West makes an interesting pairing with The Animators. Like the first book, it, too, is centered on a partnership, this one between two young lovers who meet and escape from their hometown during the early phases of a deadly, modern civil war.

Saeed and Nadia meet in a business class and begin dating just as war starts encroaching on their city:

The following evening helicopters filled the sky like birds startled by a gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of their tree. They rose, singly and in pairs, and fanned out above the city in the reddening dusk, as the sun slipped below the horizon, and the whir of their rotors echoed through windows and down alleys, seemingly compressing the air beneath them, as though each were mounted atop an invisible column, an invisible breathable cylinder, these odd, hawkish, mobile sculptures, some thin, with tandem canopies, pilot and gunner at different heights, and some fat, full of personnel, chopping, chopping through the heavens.

The story is told in a lofty, mythical, religious tone. Sentences spool out like scripture. For the most part, I found this style beautiful. Occasionally, it would become too much, and I wished the story was more simply told. But that would only happen rarely, and the beautiful far outweighed the florid.

As things worsen in their city, the couple starts hearing rumors about the existence of doors that will magically lead them to a different place. I’d heard about this element of Exit West, and as that part of the story drew closer I found myself resisting the idea. I don’t know why that was. (Magical realism prudishness?) Whatever the case, I was dragging my feet. When it did finally occur, when they found a door, my stomach knotted up the way it does when your therapist or partner points out a flaw in your character. That knotted-up feeling was short-lived. The doors are a beautiful device. They make the reader feel—more clearly than straight realism ever could—precisely what refugees want. They want a door to take them from whatever frightening place they’re in, to a place that is safe. By skipping the realism we see it for what it is. The trick is high art.

There is a blurb on the back of the book that calls it “extraordinarily clever.” That is a gross understatement. Better than clever, the book is wise. Not only does it track Nadia and Saeed as they move through these doors, traveling first to a small island in Greece, then to London, then to Marin County, but it also tracks their relationship as it slowly, sadly, and realistically begins to unravel. There is no melodrama in this part of the story. When the two lovers lie in bed without touching, it feels as if they are true flesh-and-blood characters. In the end, Exit West did that thing that only great literature can do: It made me feel more fully for humans writ large.

The Animators clearly announces the arrival of a true and deep talent. But Exit West is a full-fledged masterpiece; it’s necessary, timely, wise, and beautiful. I must advance it to the next round.


The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: Sometimes one of the books on the ToB shortlist stands out for its timeliness, and, as Judge Hoffman points out, Exit West feels like that kind of novel this year. Timeliness in fiction, of course, always involves a bit of luck. Novels are almost always written a couple years before you read them and so the “right book at the right time” phenomenon is usually something of an accident. Timeliness is also relative to your vantage point. I imagine that as someone who was born in South Asia and lives only part-time in the US, Hamid considers refugee crises as more of an evergreen topic than they are for American readers like me in our little bubble between oceans.

Still, Hamid’s parable about magical doors through which brown people from war-torn lands magically emerge into the West reads like a Trumpist nightmare from the first page. No more Build. That. Wall! Now it’s Call. A. Locksmith!

The best parts of the book, though, are about the relationship between Saeed and Nadia. Their romance, which goes through several changes as the story progresses, feels very real and Hamid’s treatment of it is extremely empathetic. The contrast between the verisimilitude of their story and the magical elements of their environment was extremely effective. It’s a terrific book.

John Warner: It’s hard to talk about how well-handled the Saeed/Nadia relationship is without spoiling some things, but I’m with you on how important Hamid’s approach to the dynamic is to the story. It would’ve been easy to write a “two refugees in love against the world” story (well, maybe not easy, but easier), which would have us rooting for the couple against the external forces trying to douse their mutual passion, but the novel never joins them in that way. For the entire narrative, they remain individual characters with independent agency, even when a scene or a moment may be presented through the lens of only one of them.

I don’t think James Wood of the New Yorker weighed in on Exit West, but if he had, I imagine him admiring Hamid’s use of “free indirect speech,” which Wood rhapsodizes over in his How Fiction Works. In a single page, Exit West will move between Saeed, Nadia, and Saeed’s father, and around again entirely seamlessly, occasionally zooming out to reveal a more objective or even omniscient narration. The control is amazing.

Kevin: I am usually allergic to those kinds of POV tricks (and I always advise against them when running a workshop or critiquing a manuscript), but Exit West pulls it off. You can break rules after you master rules, and Hamid is, as you say, in complete control.

Related to the POV, Judge Hoffman touches on the almost fablistic voice used in this novel, which I think is employed for good reasons. The doors are a metaphor and a satirical device. To create a narrative in which they seem more real would have been to tell a different kind of story, one that could have tipped into fantasy or magical realism. But I would still want to read that novel. There are so many unanswered questions, so many unexplored consequences of a world in which physical borders are rendered meaningless, and I wanted to be immersed in that universe for a while. This is not fair criticism, and I don’t pose it as such. I don’t really wish Hamid had written a different book than the one he did. He made these choices for good reasons and was undeniably successful. This novel had me thinking about the doors it didn’t walk through, however, as well as the doors it did. That’s just a bonus for the reader, I think.

John: It would take a special book to give Exit West a run for its money, and for Judge Hoffman, The Animators fits the bill. I’ve only just started the book myself (about 100 pages in as I type), but it clips along exactly as Judge Hoffman describes, and even though I’m a fan of all of Hamid’s work and am glad to see Exit West move on, I’m disappointed that The Animators isn’t going to be around so we can have another crack at it after I’ve finished the book.

Kevin: I am racing you on The Animators, and I’m enjoying it a great deal. But ambition counts on the way to the Rooster, and Exit West is constructed of big ideas. The Animators definitely gets a recommendation from me, though.

John: I’m pleased to see Judge Hoffman’s highlighting of passages from each book because they really give a sense of the different rhythms these authors are working with. Whitaker’s prose has punch, showing Mel at a distance then zooming in for the toe-to-head inspection.

Hamid’s writing is more lilting, like a cursive line drawing loops around the page. Check out the length of that second sentence.

I’m well-familiar with how difficult it is to write a fully satisfying novel, but one of the things I’m struck with every year when we gather for the Tournament is appreciating how many different ways there are to arrive in those satisfying places.

Kevin: On Monday, we have the final match of the opening round, as Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin takes on Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho. Jeffrey Cranor, one of the writers of the excellent and popular Welcome to Night Vale podcast will bear the gavel, and Janet Potter of The Millions will be taking on commentary duties.

You and I will pop in briefly to give our first Zombie Round update, however. Just 72 hours from now, the race for the Rooster will really start to take shape.

2018 Tournament of Books Merch

New 2018 Tournament of Books merch is now available at the TMN Store. As a reminder, Sustaining Members receive 50 percent off everything in our store. To find out why we're asking for your support and how you can become a Sustaining Member, please visit our Membership page. Thank you.


blog comments powered by Disqus