“The woman who pulled me from my mother’s legs was a biologist who looked after the sea mammals,” says Evie, the narrator of Crissy Van Meter’s lush and complex debut novel, “Creatures.” “She said my birth wasn’t so far from a seal’s, anyway.”
Is that line a dismissal of our inherent humanity, suggesting we’re no more civilized than a barking, flippery animal? Or does that line evoke something more elevated about us, implying that we’re in tune with an ecosystem that’s more magical and harder to comprehend? A little of both, Van Meter would have us think, in a novel that aims to both beguile with its lyricism and hit hard with a sense of human ferality. Impressively, she largely pulls it off.
Ferality first. “Creatures” is set on the fictional Winter Island, a Catalina-esque spot 40 miles from L.A., where tourists arrive every summer to abandon their workaday responsibilities: They were “excused for littering, double-parking, loitering, and any other sin that they could find for their holiday.” Evie is raised mostly by her coke-addicted father, who keeps a set of dissolute wealthy pals and maintains a marijuana patch that helps shore up the creaky household. As a teen she helped dad sell to Fourth of July revelers from a “hot-pink flowered backpack half-full of weed.”
Evie’s mother split years prior, leaving the narrator to navigate both an irrational, checked-out dad and a ravaged locale that leaves the locals ravaged too. After a tsunami hits the island, she writes, “we shouted wildly at the sea and called ourselves survivors.” The symbolism for this untamed and perilous milieu arrives on the first page, as a grown-up Evie fears her fisherman fiance is lost at sea as a whale carcass arrives near the shore. Also arriving: her mother on a surprise visit, a reminder that she has no real model for a stable relationship.
Van Meter shuttles this story back and forth in time, from Evie’s childhood to her marriage and back to her stormy relationship with her parents. In the process, her lifelong anxiety about broken relationships comes into increasing focus. As a teen, she clung tight to Rook, the daughter of a wealthy L.A. architect and wild child. Later, married, Evie has more and more reasons to be concerned for her family’s health, livelihood and fidelity. The mood of the novel, especially in the later chapters, is dominated by loss and betrayal. “My mother said it was impossible to forgive people,” she says. “You can’t just forget the jellyfish that stopped your heart.”
The sensibility of this short, gemlike novel puts Van Meter, a SoCal native and former surf editor at ESPN, in league with contemporary novelists for whom humans and their environment are tightly bound together — Lydia Millet, Joy Williams and T.C. Boyle come to mind. And “Creatures” is studded with lovely, melancholy sentences that shimmer like dark sea glass. “We lived on fake money, famous money, and drug money”; “I was full on unlimited fries and Mom’s secondhand smoke”; “He promises to give me some of his pain, and I promise to give some back.”
Van Meter can also press too hard to stress the sweet-and-sour nature of Evie’s youth, though. The novel’s spell is occasionally broken by purple sentences (“The things that broke us: the harshness of the earth, and love”) or biology factoids awkwardly pushed into metaphorical service (“Sometimes an organism must play a different ecological role under pressure”). As the novel’s title suggests, Van Meter is exploring the line between the reckless, druggy, creaturey side of our character and the civilized one that craves connection with a lover, a parent or a child. That dynamic would feel more consistently urgent if there were a clearer sense of Evie’s relationships with secondary characters like Rook and her son. In those cases, lyricism is as much a barrier as it is a lure.
But in Evie’s closest relationships — with her parents and her husband — Van Meter beautifully evokes the challenge of loving somebody in spite of themselves or yourself. “You could end up like the loneliest whale in the sea if you are not careful,” she writes. “If you live on an island with a mother who doesn’t want you and a father who wants too much, you might scream and no one will hear you.”
Evie’s sense of inner conflict runs deep. Her maddening, go-away-a-little closer mom also taught her about the ocean; her addict dad, for all his flaws, kept her safe. It’s no wonder that she feels so tempest-tossed throughout her life. Van Meter tells that story with empathy and clarity but also evokes the wildness that her setting deserves. “Creatures” delivers a powerful feeling that we, like Evie, are destined to always feel at least a little adrift.
Crissy Van Meter
Algonquin Books: 256 pages, $25.95
Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”