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Je Banach: What It Means to be Hungry

November 10, 2009

By **Je Banach**

**A VERY UNLIKELY BOOK**

Some time ago I received an email from Jonathan Safran Foer in which he revealed that he was working on “a very unlikely book.” He was referring to his latest work, a volume entitled Eating Animals, which marks a major departure from his previous books. It is a piece of non-fiction that illuminates the horror-filled world of factory farming and meat production. As if already preparing for the onslaught from his detractors, he told me that he “[d]idn’t want to write it, had a difficult time writing it, but…it felt unavoidable.”

Accounting in advance for those who would find fault with a famous novelist – a young novelist – putting out a book about a rather nervy social issue, he offered, “It’s not really a case for anything, so much as a conversational artifact of my journey.” It is this same tone of self-consciousness that pervades the book, with Foer admitting that he is aware of the ideas that the general meat-eating public may have about vegetarians’ so-called “radical agendas,” aware of the accusations of pretension that may result from being young and vocal about highly-charged social issues, aware of the criticism that will flow from the mouths of those who cannot understand his apparent wish to stray from the genre that catapulted him to literary stardom. So while the words of Eating Animals illuminate the realities of what choosing to eat meat really means, Foer’s self-consciousness illuminates another problem: namely, the prevailing notion that it is more noble to keep your views to yourself than to air them (so as not to inconvenience others with observations which might require one to rethink and revise his or her daily habits and the fundamental way he or she lives). In several places in the text Foer goes so far as to suggest that he is not even certain that eating meat is fundamentally wrong. Whether this is actually true or whether he says this in a final act of self-consciousness resulting from a wish not to isolate, polarize, or offend large numbers of readers is up for debate. Perhaps even he is undecided.

Foer’s self-consciousness is, at least in part, unfounded. Historically it is unfounded, and the book that he refers to as “unlikely” is not unlikely at all. American literature has been, and continues to be, defined by a tradition of work that presents social and cultural commentary for our consideration–protest literature, some might call it. Eating Animals may conjure up memories of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or cause one to think of the new journalism of Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe – works by writers who are known today not as “irritating activists,” but as novelists. Of course, what we can presume Foer meant was that meat is an unlikely subject for a kosher, Jewish novelist – a sentiment he replicates in the book. Still, we cannot take his categorization of the work as “unlikely” too seriously. As a novelist, Foer knows that nothing is off limits.

While it is hard to imagine larger problems than the excessive pollution, torture, and violence linked to contemporary meat farming, the book presents a look at a larger and grosser problem.

Foer admits that he understands that those who are vegetarians, and many who are not, are already aware of the horrors involved in getting meat onto their plates. What, then, is the purpose of a book that preaches to the choir (in the case of vegetarians and vegans) or falls on deaf ears (for willful carnivores)? It must be more than a Just in case you hadn’t heard…, more than a lecture attempting to convert those same carnivores who have chosen to ignore this information previously. What, then, is the book really about?

Eating Animals, Foer said to me, “is not a case for vegetarianism.” To say that it is would be too reductive. Too confining and inaccurate. What he really meant, I would wager, (since he says in the book that it is a case for vegetarianism) is that the work is not simply a case for vegetarianism.

**WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUNGRY**

It is difficult to imagine how a book entitled Eating Animals, which discusses in great detail and at great length the grossest and most horrifying details of animal farming and meat production, could be anything other than a case for vegetarianism, but somehow it is true. Foer has accomplished this, and the book is about something else – a much bigger problem than whether one chooses to eat meat. While it is hard to imagine larger problems than the excessive pollution, torture, and violence linked to contemporary meat farming, the book presents a look at a larger and grosser problem: namely, the problem of forgetting. Most of us no longer remember what it means to be hungry. It is the problem of “cultural forgetting.” Our having rather than our lacking, our sense of entitlement, of what we are owed rather than what we have earned (made possible by those that toiled before us) has lulled us into forgetting, into knowing but not caring or, at best, caring but not acting. We are consumed by the details of our busy lives and do not have time to remember. In case we do not understand what is meant by “cultural forgetting,” Foer does what he does best: storytelling. The stories of his grandmother, a World War II survivor with an obsession with her grandchildren’s weight, helps us understand the glaring difference between having and not having. Hunger is lack, and lack – or the threat of lack – makes one vigilant. Protective. Not just of food or belongings, but of values. “If nothing means anything, there is nothing to save,” she says. With our bellies full and our needs met, we let down our guard and become complicit. This problem of complicity is not tethered only to our consumption of meat. The link between our complicity and our general consumership is a grave problem that has a domino effect in the perpetuation of our worst social problems: pollution, poor health care, poverty, homelessness, unemployment. It is destroying our general welfare. This complicity – this forgetting – is the greatest and most gross symptom of our time. The messenger of this news should make no apologies.

Foer’s self-consciousness seems to include some slight and well-meaning trepidation that an exploration of anything too conceptual will turn off readers. (He refers to his time studying philosophy as a time of having his first truly pretentious ideas, as if he owes some apology.) And yet, what Foer is proposing is not a lofty or intrusive concept at all. He simply makes a case – an important and timely case – for personal responsibility, consciousness, awareness, and activism. It is not even political responsibility he advocates for, but personal responsibility. Sections of the book such as the lexicon and grisly accounts of animal slaughter and abuse can be difficult to get through. Fans of Foer’s novels will find some of what they are seeking in the opening and close of the book: two sections both entitled Storytelling which function as textual bookends. In fact it is storytelling that Foer does best, and the sections wherein the text turns more into story than statement are special treats for readers to devour while they await his next novel. Although Foer’s fans will undoubtedly wish for more storytelling and less fact-finding, readers would do well to welcome the work of non-fiction. Within the context of the most important job of literature – to prevent the forgetting, to help us to remember, to document so that we can recall, reconsider, do better – Foer’s book is not so far departed from his previous works as one might think. It is a very likely book after all.

Je Banach, who has written for Esquire, is engaged in a collaborative fiction project with Jonathan Lethem.

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