Of mongrels and men: Don LePan’s Animals

Animals, by Don LePan, Esplanade books, 179 pages

The Argument from Marginal Cases is a philosophical gambit used by some advocates of animal rights. In short: if only humans deserve full moral status, that status must be a result of some property that all of us, and only us, possess; but name a property – reason, language – and there are “marginal” humans – infants, people with severe intellectual disabilities – that don’t have it; and any property that all human beings do share – sentience, the ability to suffer – is shared by most non-humans, too; so assuming we still agree that all humans are worthy of full moral status, most non-humans must also deserve such status.

Don LePan’s Animals is a novelization of this argument. A “great extinction of species” has wiped out all livestock and most fish; people with intellectual disabilities or “physical deformities” have come to be considered not “marginal” but “mongrels”; hankering for something resembling the old-fashioned form of protein, humans have set up factory farms for mongrels; if we feel this is revolting and wrong, then it must also be revolting and wrong to factory farm non-human animals.

The main variable in this thought experiment is Sam, a mongrel who, abandoned by his family at nine years old, spends the rest of his childhood as a pet. Sam’s story has been recorded in a manuscript by one of his keepers, and this manuscript is presented to the reader, and frequently commented on, by Broderick Clark, an advocate for mongrel welfare. In other words, Animals is a story within a story, it is Sam’s story contextualized by Broderick’s descriptions of the broader dystopia.

Both Sam and Broderick possess distinctive, believable voices. Sam reads Where the Wild Things Are and thinks “I want the walls to become the world all around, like they are for Max. And then he wanted to be where someone loved him best of all and I want that too, that’s all I want, really.” Broderick, though he objects to factory farming, takes for granted that mongrels are “sub-human,” and is always utterly assured: “All it took to demolish those [arguments that mongrels are humans] – those sorts of outbursts, really, you could hardly in fairness call them arguments – was one simple fact, one simple example. A mule comes out of the womb of a horse, and it is not a horse.” Sam’s mother, a relatively minor character, also possesses distinctive diction: “I think what I am doing is for the best . . . but I am not knowing this. Sometimes I am thinking there is nothing we can know . . .”

Broderick’s voice, however, prevails. His comments on Sam’s story take up nearly forty percent of the first two of the book’s three parts, and begin on the second page of the text. And his notes are themselves heavily footnoted. The detail here is impressive and occasionally compelling: Broderick gives etymologies of the labels of his day, considers why an upper class might want to keep meat and alcohol cheap, and debunks the “campaign against soy.” But his interjections make it very difficult to engage with Sam’s story.

Perhaps this is the point. Broderick is a kind of Polonius-figure, he pipes up “just briefly to sketch some of the historical background” and then goes on for pages, he doesn’t want to be “too much of a distraction” but he can’t stop talking. Perhaps LePan wants us to see Broderick the way Shakespeare wants us to see Polonius: as a fool. After all, we can hardly be expected to admire his condemnations of factory farming when what he’s advocating is humane cannibalism. Broderick is like Professor Pieixoto, too, the twenty-second century historian who edits, titles, and presents the tale of Offred in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Using the reasoned, detached language of academia, Pieixoto argues that “we must be cautious about passing moral judgment upon the Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgments are of necessity culture-specific.” Having spent an entire novel judging the Gileadeans for destroying Offred’s family, obliterating her identity, and subjecting her to what might well be described as “humane” rape, readers must find Pieixoto’s suggestion reprehensible. The problem is that unlike Polonius and Pieixoto, Broderick is more than a parody. In fact, he is the most fully formed, and thus the most sympathetic, character in LePan’s novel. It’s not just that we hear his voice most. In addition to being an academic and activist, Broderick is Sam’s older brother. As such, he is “careful and caring,” and he defends his “different” younger sibling from bullying. He doesn’t understand Sam, and his care cannot save Sam, but it does open up the possibility that the ethical position he arrives at as an adult is at least partly an attempt to come to terms with what happened to his little brother.

All this puzzling over Broderick is made moot in the end by LePan’s Afterword. Here it becomes clear that the character’s ethical position, far from being a joke or a warning, and in addition to perhaps being a reaction to childhood trauma, is the same as his author’s. Both Broderick and LePan are arguing – passionately, eloquently, earnestly – for an end to factory farming, for improved welfare for food animals, but neither is arguing for animal rights, neither is arguing for the abolition of animal use. There is nothing wrong with this position per se; it’s common and often convincing in contemporary discussions of our obligations toward non-humans. But within the world of LePan’s novel – where humans with intellectual disabilities are stand-ins for, are equated with, non-human animals – it is absolutely untenable, as it suggests that it might be acceptable to use humans with intellectual disabilities for food so long as we do not factory farm them. Broderick defends the indefensible, and rather than laugh or scoff at him, LePan wants us to take him seriously. This failure to condemn the killing and eating of humans with intellectual disabilities does not, obviously, mean that LePan might actually support such a practice. No reader could possibly come away from his book thinking so. Nevertheless, while Broderick’s three-dimensionality, his humanity, makes for good fiction, it is also despicable philosophy and dangerous politics, and these are realms that LePan clearly wants his novel to exist in.

Animals makes one more major omission that is not quite dangerous but is disappointing. On the first page of the novel, LePan makes it explicit that Sam is not, in fact, intellectually disabled – not a mongrel – but is deaf. Among “marginal” cases, then, Sam is himself marginal, his classification as a mongrel is a mistake. Like Peter “We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete” Singer – the most famous proponent of the Argument from Marginal Cases, and a blurber of LePan’s book (“An engaging story that asks deep and challenging questions”) – LePan is here interested in “marginal” cases as far as they can help him make his point about animals and no farther; he wants to use them in his thought experiment but does not seem interested in giving a full account of their lives or in attempting to convey their voices. 

A symptom of this disinclination is LePan’s refusal to name names. His mongrels are not people with Down syndrome – named after the physician John Langdon Down – or Asperger’s syndrome, or muscular dystrophy. They’re people with “Peake’s Syndrome” – named after “James Langford Peake” – “Gyberger’s Syndrome,” and “Sellars’ dystrophy.” Journalist Margaret Wente appears in the novel as Margaret Wente; a 2008 Harvard study on soy appears as a 2008 Harvard study on soy; scientists Samuel Wood and Andrew French appear as Samuel Wood and Andrew French, respectively. Only disabilities exist in a pseudonymous parallel universe.

At the end of his Afterword, LePan argues convincingly that “Those who posit a clear dividing line between human and non-human have often suggested that one uniquely human quality is the power to exercise a moral imagination: the power to imagine ourselves in the place of another being, and to modify or change our own actions in the light of that imaginative experience . . . if we fail to put such imaginative power to use . . . then we are helping to sustain a system founded on almost limitless human cruelty.” One is left wishing that LePan had spent less time attempting to animate lifeless philosophy, less time echoing arid voices of reason, and instead used his evident imaginative powers to explore the life and the voice of one of his mongrels, or of a person with Down syndrome, or of a cow or a pig or a chicken. One is left wishing, in other words, that LePan had trusted his own imaginative powers further.

1 Response to “Of mongrels and men: Don LePan’s Animals”

  1. 1 David Regan January 3, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    — Here’s Don’s response:

    — And here are other responses to his novel, beginning with the blurbs:

    “…devastating. Animals is a powerful novel, and a fully convincing one. …”
    – P.K. Page

    “an engaging story that asks deep and challenging questions.”
    – Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University

    “well written and engrossing. I found that the story hooked me from the start.”
    – Angus Taylor, University of Victoria; author of Animals and Ethics

    “Provocative, original, beautifully crafted and achingly human, this is a novel that illuminates what we so called `higher beings’ strive to keep darkly hidden from our consciousness. No more, no more. Animals … is destined to become a classic.”
    – Catherine Banks, author of Bone Cage (winner, Governor General’s Award, Drama, 2008)

    “a deeply moving narrative that can change your life–it did mine.”
    – Thomas Hurka, Jackman Distinguished Chair in Philosophical Studies, U. of Toronto

    “Immediately gripping and deeply moving, Animals imagines a future in which nonhuman animals have become extinct, and “defective” once-human beings called mongrels have replaced them. … In this powerful tale of a mongrel boy named Sam, Don LePan compels us to consider our own relationship to the fellow creatures that we love, abuse, and eat. Animals is an engrossing, elegantly written, and timely contribution to the great tradition of dystopic fiction.”
    – Kathryn Shevelow, Professor of English Literature, University of California, San Diego; author of For the Love of Animals (listed as one of 2008’s outstanding books by The Globe and Mail and The Washington Post)

    “Animals is an impressive book that makes a powerful statement–I think it is the Animal Farm of these times. It’s also an accomplished work formally; a flowing narrative forms its central current, but brilliant shifts in style and narrative voice keep swirling within that current, and strong commentaries that are moral yet not homiletic keep forming eddies around it.”
    – Victor Ramraj, Professor of English Literature, University of Calgary, editor of Concert of Voices: An Anthology of World Writing in English

    — Here’s a five-star customer review:

    — Here’s the Globe and Mail review:

    — Here’s the Montreal Review of Books review:

    — Here’s The Lyon review:

    — There are interviews with the author here…

    And here:

    — A student asked for proofreading help on an essay about the novel here:

    — Mr. LePan’s blog around the book is here…

    And his website is here:

    — An event partly structured around the novel is taking place here:

    Location: 140 Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building, York University, Keele campus
    Date: Mar 2, 2010, 12:30pm-2pm

    Ella Soper-Jones on the Role of Factory Farming in Contemporary Society

    In her Governor General’s Literary Award-winning A Complicated Kindness (2004), Miriam Toews offers a quirky, poignant glimpse into Mennonite society from the perspective of a deeply conflicted adolescent girl who weighs her options for the future, among them a “career” at the local slaughterhouse, the ironically named Happy Family Farms.

    Don LePan’s newly released Animals (2009) explores to more profoundly unsettling effect the function of narratives that end on the meat production line, and what such endings might tell us about the status of both human and non-human animals.

    Using still images and video clips, this presentation will bring Toews’ and LePan’s novels into dialogue with Sue Coe’s Dead Meat and other artistic/cultural works about the role of factory farming in contemporary society.

    Sponsor: Faculty of Environmental Studies


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