The bookstore where I work has only sold one copy of this book: to me. I found it hard to get into, and it’s sat on my bedside drawers for months. Please not another story about a 20-something guy struggling to come to terms with his existence. Life is so hard when you’re a white man.
And yet. Yet. It is beautifully written. Emily Bitto – author of The Strays, a recent book based loosely on the 1940s modernist movement in Melbourne, (a book that I really liked) – calls it a ‘painterly work’. Fever of Animals is painterly, clever and darkly funny, if a little self-obsessed.
Our protagonist, Miles, a failed painter coming to terms with his father’s death and relationship break down with Alice, goes on a quest to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Romanian surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu. At times, the quest is more about Alice (the first of many too-thin girls he chases only to push them away), sometimes about death and oftentimes about art and existence. It’s in this layering of stories and thoughts and moments that the true meaning of the novel comes about. The structure – at times – seems to mimic surrealist devices, particularly when Miles is in Romania, and would translate well to an art film, looping between dream states and non-narrative montages, then back to reality (in inverted commas).
Despite not wanting to enjoy this book, I know it affected me because part way through I found myself Googling Emil Bafdescu, the artist whom fictional Miles is obsessed with. I laughed when I discovered that Bafdescu is an entirely fictional character, so convinced was I that he was a real artist. I was not convinced that this was entirely a work of fiction – the author and his main character both being named Miles – and yet perhaps here lies its cleverness.
Like any existential quest, I don’t know that any of us are closer to holding some knowable, absolute truth about life or death. But the novel reaches a very fine conclusion in a bar in Berlin. And I really, really enjoyed reading it.
So Miles Allinson, I’ll let you win this time. But if I see you in a bar I’m going to challenge you to an arm wrestle. See how you fare against a not-thin girl.