Unfinished Animals: A Novel

In 1973, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote something wise:

“We are, in sum, incomplete or unfinished animals who complete ourselves through culture – and not through culture in general but through particular forms of it.”

The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 1973

I love this idea: it’s what makes life so exciting and so terrible. We are born, not as blank slates, but certainly unfinished. Our parents and carers start our finishing, but as adults we, in collusion with our society, continue the process.

Our culture dictates much of our finishing – not least by containing our imagination of the possible – but we can (I believe) direct our finishing to a greater or lesser extent. What books do you read? Where do you take your holidays? What work do you do? What food do you eat? Do you respect the law? How do you raise your children? How do you fall in love?

This finishing is the theme of the novel I’m working on at Curtis Brown. It now has the working title Unfinished Animals. The book explores the two extremes of our philosophies of finishing, courtesy of French existentialist Albert Camus: what he calls the best living and the most living.

Do we attempt to pursue what we judge to be the best things in life; or do we simply cram the most of life that we can, into whatever time we are allotted?

So here’s the opening to the book. I hope you enjoy it!

Unfinished Animals

By Me, David Charles

Everything I did that morning was perfect. If anything, a little too selfless.

I’d set my biorhythmic sunrise alarm clock to pre-dawn, sacrificing my last sleep cycle so that I’d have time to brew her coffee. The calming light flooded the bedroom and I eased myself from between the French linen sheets of my single Japanese bedroll. (Yes, we sleep in separate beds. Sharing makes women put on weight and men lose brain power – FACT.) She scarcely stirred when I tried to pilot a kiss down onto her cheek – and she’s the one with a flight to catch.

I delayed my Earthing until I’d ground exactly twelve grammes of fresh Santos Gold in our handheld burr grinder. The kettle (it’s a Bosch – of course it is) was boiling perfectly when I got back in from a slightly truncated ceremony in the garden. (Last year I built a custom Earthing pit with fourteen different natural textures; I could probably make it a side hustle). I transferred 200ml of boiling water into a beaker and inserted a probe thermometer.

While I waited, I drank the Dirty Thirty protein shake I prepared last night. (Butch’s recipe of course, delivering thirty grammes of protein in combination with MCT oil, branch chain animo acids and cinnamon to keep down the insulin response.) (I know, I know – I slipped out of ketosis last time we had her parents over.) At 79 degrees (centigrade, I’m not a monster), I eased the water through the coffee grounds – slow and steady. Twenty seconds to perfection.

I don’t drink coffee myself. But if something’s worth doing, my secondary school statistics teacher used to tell me, then it’s worth gathering data, monitoring outcomes and improving performance incrementally until perfection is attained. In this case: the perfect cup of coffee. Of course, I haven’t a clue what it tastes like, but I know what Alicia’s reaction will be because this is the culmination of trial and error experimentation most mornings for the duration of our engagement.

Like I said, everything I did that morning was perfect. So I was astonished when later, in the car (it’s a Volvo and I’m okay with that) on our way to the airport, she said: ‘I think we might have to call it off.’

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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