Posts Tagged 'review'

Worth eating

Review of Mark Schatzker’s Steak.

You may think you don’t need to read a whole volume about one man’s quest for succulent pieces of a cow. Maybe you’re a vegetarian who objects to the very notion of steak. Maybe you think that yet another book about yet another guy’s deep obsession with yet another small corner of human existence is simply too much.

You’d be wrong. “Steak” is well worth reading, and not just for those of us whose mouth is set to watering by a cover that depicts four pieces of perfectly broiled steak skewered on a fork.

What Schatzker has done here, in this trip around the planet by a peripatetic carnivore chasing a meaty McGuffin, is nothing less than offer an impassioned, cogent, even humble defence of why the steak — and, by extension, meat in general — is worth eating.

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The story with the red herrings: Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil

Beatrice & Virgil, by Yann Martel, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 213 pages 

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was about the life of a boy named Pi, especially 227 days he spent on a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker.  It contained disquisitions on faith, zoos, and anthropomorphism, and it briefly blurred the line between autobiography and fiction, but all in service of the simple story of a boy on a boat with a big cat.

Anthropocentrism, and the assumption that stories about actual animals are for children (see left), led some readers to see Richard Parker as a human concept in cat’s clothing: chaos, violence, wildness.  As Pi, anticipating these readings, put it, “we look at an animal and see a mirror.”  But sometimes a tiger is just a tiger, or, again in Pi’s words, “an animal is an animal, essentially and practically removed from us.”  Richard Parker, to Martel’s great credit, was as fully tiger as his boatmate was fully human, and as unknowable as his real-life kin.  The complexity, the reality of both characters, human and non-human, made a literal reading of Pi far more compelling than an allegorical one.

Life of Pi’s conclusion, too, was most interesting, and most challenging, when read literally.  “The story with the animals is the better story” was not, on this reading, a trite celebration of the imagination as coping mechanism.  Rather, it was an argument for the conservation of endangered species.  Species like the Borneo orang-utan, expected to be extinct in the next ten to thirty years; like the Grant zebra, the most abundant species of zebra – and the only one not endangered – but nevertheless extirpated now from Burundi and, likely, Angola; like the spotted hyena, threatened in nine countries and extirpated from Algeria and Lesotho; and, of course, like the Bengal tiger, which accounts for about half of the 2,500-4,000 tigers that remain in the wild, down from 100,000 a century ago and declining fast.

Two years after Pi was published, another book with a tiger on its cover made a similar argument.  In Monster of God, David Quammen asked readers to contemplate “the psychological, mythic, and spiritual dimensions (as well as the ecological implications)” of the ancient relationship between humans and “alpha predators” – occasional maneaters – like tigers.  Quammen suggested these animals keep us “acutely aware of our membership within the natural world,” they’ve “played an important role in shaping the way our species construes its own place in creation,” they “challenge us to transcendent fits of courage . . . They allow us to recollect our limitations.  They keep us company” – all of which might be said of Richard Parker and his relationship with Pi.  Quammen predicted that “the last wild, viable, free-ranging population of big flesh-eaters” would disappear by 2150, and with it the last fictional correlatives of such fauna.  In other words, by 2150, books like Life of Pi will be impossible.  The story with these kinds of animals, the better story, will go extinct.

Species extinction is ostensibly a concern in Beatrice & Virgil, too.  Here, Martel’s barely blurred stand-in, Henry L’Hote, meets another Henry, a taxidermist and playwright.  The latter’s life’s work, A 20th-Century Shirt, is about a donkey and a howler monkey, Beatrice and Virgil, respectively.  Lengthy excerpts from this play are interspersed with the story of the Henrys’ relationship.  In these excerpts, Beatrice and Virgil discuss fruit, faith, and the persecution they’ve experienced, and they attempt to answer “the key question of the play”: “How are we going to talk about what happened to us one day when it’s over?”  Obviously, neither Beatrice nor Virgil is correlative with any actual donkeys or monkeys; like Art Spiegelman’s cats and mice and George Orwell’s livestock, they’re humans in animal attire.  More specifically, they’re representatives of Jews in Nazi Germany or occupied Poland.

Nevertheless, the taxidermist claims his play, like Martel’s previous novel, is about “The animals!  They’re two-thirds dead . . . In quantity and variety, put together, two thirds of all animals have been exterminated, wiped out forever.  My play is about this . . . irreparable abomination.”  His taxidermy is about this, too: it’s a dying business because “No one wants animals anymore . . . The wild ones, the real ones, they’re all going, if not already gone”; “I wanted to see if something could be saved once the irreparable had been done.  That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness.”

L’Hote, charitably, attempts to read the taxidermist’s play the way the taxidermist wants him to.  He convinces himself that the taxidermist is “using the Holocaust to speak of the extermination of animal life.  Doomed creatures that could not speak for themselves were being given the voice of a most articulate people who had been similarly doomed.  He was seeing the tragic fate of animals through the tragic fate of Jews.”

This interpretation, however, simply doesn’t work.  A 20th-Century Shirt is not for a moment about non-humans.  Beatrice and Virgil call their persecution “The Horrors”; their play takes place on a striped shirt; Virgil describes his sudden exile from his community by government edict (“BEWARE!  Large prehensile-tailed monkey with grotesque jaw, often with attempt at concealment by means of jowl beard . . . Untrustworthy”); all of this, as well as allusions to Emmanuel Ringelblum, the Nazi salute, and Auschwitz, points readers toward the Holocaust, and there is no corresponding movement from the Holocaust to species extinction. 

Beatrice & Virgil, too, is clearly about the Holocaust.  Beneath its dust jacket, it’s also striped;  L’Hote approaches Hitler’s reign as he approaches the taxidermist’s shop – “1919 . . . 1923 . . . 1929 . . . 1933.  The very address he was looking for!”; L’Hote himself has written an unpublishable book about the Holocaust; etc.   There are actual animals here: L’Hote adopts a cat and dog, the taxidermist is allowed to pontificate about his trade and about the absence of non-humans from everyday life, and his shop contains “a shared culture of animalness . . . a community.”  Again, however, all of this points readers toward the Holocaust, all of this is in service of an exploration of how to represent the Holocaust.  The taxidermist and Martel both use animals in trying to tell the story of the Holocaust, and not vice versa.  L’Hote’s suggestion to the contrary is baffling. 

L’Hote himself is similarly baffled by a short story by Flaubert that the taxidermist sends to him, along with a note and a scene from A 20th-Century Shirt, in initiating their relationship.  In “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator,” the title character becomes obsessed with hunting; he finally gives it up after being cursed by a stag whose family, whose entire community, he has destroyed; he nevertheless ends up killing his parents, as dictated by the stag’s curse; full of remorse, he devotes himself to others, and is eventually redeemed by Christ.  To L’Hote, “the murder of the animals made no sense.  It found no resolution, no reckoning, within the framework of the story . . . the slaughter, a wished-for extinction of animals, is a senseless orgy about which Julian’s savior has not a single word to say . . . it leaves burning and unredeemed an outrage against animals.”

Could Martel have intended Beatrice & Virgil to be as “baffling and unsatisfying” to his readers as “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator” is to L’Hote?  Is it about “the animals” insofar as it reminds us that, when it comes to those left outside the human community, those we don’t define as persons, we can get away with anything, including saying not a single word about what might metaphorically be described as their genocide?  Or is this a charitable attempt to make sense of what is simply a red herring in a largely incoherent novel?

All of this is to say that Beatrice & Virgil is, indeed, unsatisfying.  What’s ultimately most frustrating, however, is that none of its characters, human or non-human, come close to showing as much life as a single member of the cast of Life of Pi.  In fact, they’re rarely as vivid as the stuffed skins in the taxidermist’s menagerie.  The novel’s philosophical or political shortcomings are not, in other words, redeemed by its personalities.  Martel is reportedly now working on a novel about three chimpanzees.  One hopes that they have more in common with Pi and Richard Parker – that is, more in common with their non-fictional correlatives – than with Virgil or Beatrice.

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.


@AIC

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