Book Review: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Hamish Hamilton, €24.70
Published 11/04/2010 | 05:00
This treatise on man's cruelty to animals is marred by dollops of self-indulgence and pomposity, writes Frieda Klotz
Eating Animals is not really about eating animals, it's about why you shouldn't eat them. And, more specifically, why Jonathan Safran Foer, a 32-year-old New Yorker, thinks you shouldn't. He explains that on the brink of fatherhood, he began to wonder what he would feed his child. With this as a starting point he proceeds to take readers through some of the philosophical issues inherent in killing cows, pigs, piglets and chicks, and the horrific treatment those animals receive, especially in American factory farms.
Safran Foer is better known as a novelist than a journalist. His two earlier books, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, written when he was still in his 20s, were bestsellers, and Eating Animals is his first foray into non-fiction. It's a rocky debut.
The website dedicated to this book promises that Safran Foer will "brilliantly synthesiz[e] philosophy, literature, science, memoir and his own detective work". Eating Animals falls between all these stools, and as a result it makes a weaker argument against the food industry than the straight reporting of other books on the subject, such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation of 2001.
Still, Safran Foer has done his homework, and much of the information in Eating Animals is powerful. It has eight chapters, and their titles are unusual. Taking a few at random, the first is called "Storytelling", the third is "Words/ Meaning", the seventh, "I Do". and the eighth, "Storytelling" again. Safran Foer is playful, and when his playfulness works it is very clever.
He starts by defining 'Animal' and manages to put his finger on the slippery dishonesty of the US food industry's language: "Some words, like veal, help us forget what we are actually talking about. Some, like free-range, can mislead those whose consciences seek clarification. Some, like happy, mean the opposite of what they would seem. And some, like natural, mean next to nothing."
In his explanation of "Battery Cage" he likens the experience of a battery hen to that of a person stuck in a crowded lift for days. "After some time, those in the elevator will lose their ability to work in the interest of the group. Some will become violent; others will go mad. A few, deprived of food and hope, will become cannibalistic. There is no respite, no relief."
This nightmare fantasy of a chicken's experience is readable and easy to envisage. The problem is when his imaginings don't work: then they seem self-indulgent and pompous. For instance, his treatment of his dog: George is a lovable creature, to whom Safran Foer devotes quite a bit of space.
"Our relationship takes place almost entirely outside of language," he states, referring to "our various struggles -- to communicate, to recognize and accommodate each other's desires, simply to coexist." George, despite her name, is female. "She seems to have thoughts and emotions. Sometimes I think I understand them, but often I don't. Like a photograph, she cannot say what she lets me see." He continues, "She is an embodied secret. And I must be a photograph to her."
This is meant to prepare you for the next section, where Safran Foer notes that pigs, which we do eat, are as clever as dogs. He unearths a Filipino recipe called "Stewed dog, wedding style", to show how our attitude towards the food on our plates is culturally constructed.
But the long section about George was not really needed to make this point, and he doesn't seem to realise readers may not be interested in his pet, however cute George may be. Later on in the book, when Safran Foer praises a farmer who can "anticipate" and "satisfy" (his words) the needs of every animal on the farm, he seems so silly that you want to shake him. These musings are where the book flounders. He declares at one point in a gesture at modesty, "I am not a journalist, activist, vegetarian, lawyer or philosopher," but surely as a successful writer -- and now a declared vegetarian -- who studied philosophy in college, he is at least trying to be some of these things? Nor is the link between the treatment of animals and what to feed his son entirely logical. Anybody can care about cruelty to animals, not just a new parent, and the issue is as much about what we eat as about what our children eat. Yet in the journalistic sections Safran Foer's writing is strong.
"Our new sadism" is a horrifying account of the lives of chickens and pigs in captivity, filled with shocking facts about US factory farms.
"A year-long investigation found systematic abuse of tens of thousands of pigs," Safran Foer says. "The investigation documented workers extinguishing cigarettes on the animals' bodies, beating them with rakes and shovels, strangling them, and throwing them into manure pits to drown." In case that's not enough, he adds, "Workers also stuck electric prods in pigs' ears, mouths, vaginas and anuses."
There are many sections in Eating Animals that you may simply want to skip -- about George the dog, about Safran Foer's feelings when he looks into a pig's eyes. But it's a book that will indeed turn you against meat and may frighten you off fish as well.