Having already mastered the idioms of an ESL Ukrainian and a young boy with Asperger’s, Jonathan Safran Foer debuts his new voice in Eating Animals, a book-length screed devoted to the evils of meat eating. This voice may be Foer’s real one — his walk-around voice, or his walk-around-Park-Slope-pushing-a-Bugaboo-baby-stroller-in-which-his-new-son, Sasha, happily-munches-on-a-tofu-roll-up voice. It’s conversational to the point of artlessness, passionate to the point of hysteria. It’s scary, intelligent, and incredibly grating. Reading Eating Animals is like getting a colonoscopy: It’s important and salutary and everyone should do it. But if it were just a bit more pleasant, or done with a drop more lube, it would be a lot easier to make it a regular thing.
Foer’s journey starts off well. Spurred by the birth of his son in 2006, the meat-eating writer decides to take a hard look at what he chooses to eat and what he chooses to feed the helpless newborn in his arms. The premise is a good one and a useful point of departure. Foer doesn’t need to rehash the old son-of-a-survivor foodie memoir boilerplate as he does in the first chapter, “Storytelling,” and the reader needn’t bother reading it. We get it: Eating is about stories, not about sustenance. Your grandmother was the best chef in the world.
In the best parts of the book — the meat, if you will — Foer presents evidence concerning the steep environmental, moral and spiritual cost of modern factory farming. These have little to do with his grandmother or that one time he and his wife “came upon a tiny black puppy, asleep on the curb, curled into its Adopt Me vest.” The three-pronged case against eating meat, or eating less of it, or eating it more wisely, is an easy one to make. It’s bad for your body. It’s bad for your soul. It’s bad for your Earth. Foer concentrates on the last two. (Just check out the nutrition section of Barnes and Noble to be convinced of the first.) The case is, as a George Tenet might say, a “slam dunk”: The treatment of animals in today’s factory-farm system is so horrifying, it’s enough simply to know it exists to want it to end. Fittingly, long stretches the book chronicle the unhappy lives of chickens, unable to walk, unable to fly, unable even to reproduce; pigs — intelligent creatures — confined, beaten, and slaughtered; fish gaffed in the eye or the side, writhing gills slit. Vast fields of pig manure seeping into the water table. A million different viral threads stuck in the sick bodies of doped-up chickens just waiting to make the species jump.
But one doesn’t need Jonathan Safran Foer, who has only the expertise of an author, to tell you this. There are a number of experts and organizations from PETA to FarmForward to United Poultry Concerns that can do that better. There are authors like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and, of course, Eric Schlosser, who can and have drawn upon a deeper well of knowledge. Even a simple search for “factory farming” on Youtube will furnish an irrefutable graphic argument against eating flesh. Foer’s unique strength and his task as a literary wunderkind isn’t simply to turn on the lights, but to, through meaningful careful and virtuosic language, remind us to keep them on after the book’s over. In this, Foer fails.
There are half-hearted attempts at the sort of stylistic innovations found in his Incredibly Loud. The word pair “Influence/Speechlessness” is repeated 21,000 times, one time for each animal we eat in a lifetime. An early chapter is a conceptual devil’s dictionary of the meat industry. But Foer seems to imagine the subject matter too serious to deserve virtuosic or even studied language. Whether this is hubris or naivete, the result is a disaster. A preachy vegetarian is not a likable fellow and the text, full of phrases like “This Matters,” and the willful — and one can’t help but think, gleeful — use of the word “shit,” is exceedingly annoying. People love eating animals. We are, after all, eating animals. To not eat meat requires a constant jolt to the conscience. Foer’s vehicle for this message should have unforgettable prose. Rightly written, this book could have made one a vegetarian for life. Instead the facts, weighed down by mediocre words and their inconvenient truths, will soon disappear. Most likely, we’ll all be eating turkey in time for Thanksgiving.