By Craig Epplin
John Reed’s Snowball’s Chance, first published in 2002 and recently reissued as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, was born into controversy. A parodic riff on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, it promptly ignited two critical firestorms: one over its relation to Orwell’s work and another over its portrayal of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Ten years later, its polemical force remains intact, albeit differently inflected.
Reed’s book begins where Orwell’s leaves off, with the decay of the farm’s established order. Napoleon, Animal Farm’s stand-in for Stalin, dies in his sleep, and soon thereafter a stranger arrives. It is Snowball, the old revolutionary, returning from exile. Having long been the absent scapegoat for all that ailed the farm, he quickly diffuses the sinister lore surrounding him, aided by the animals’ poor collective memory. Soon he has won them over, craftily installed a puppet leader, and reformed the farm along recognizably neoliberal lines. The old leftist, in other words, has come back a capitalist. He sets about gathering support for a grand project: Animal Fair, “a land where dreams come true” and, indeed, “not just an amusement park, but a wondrous demonstration of the pure spirit of the animal!” Jingoistic nationalism commingles with capitalist individualism in Snowball’s Disneyfied discourse, as he follows what is by now a common script.
The picture Reed paints joins hard and soft power, effectively capturing the blend of coercion, manufactured consent, and embodied practice that props up the capitalist system.
This formula is the central object of Reed’s critique. Allegorizing the banalities and everyday injustices of contemporary capitalism, he stands Orwell’s fable of Soviet-style communism on its head. His deft reversal might account for at least some of the animosity that was heaped on the novel by Orwell’s partisans. His estate initially alleged copyright infringement, though this accusation never led to a lawsuit. Many critics feigned outrage and maligned Reed’s send-up of what the book’s original publisher James Sherry calls “Orwell’s anti-communist sacred cow.” One particularly snide reviewer dismissed Reed as a “smart-aleck anti-corporatist,” while Orwell hagiographer Christopher Hitchens was even less charitable, calling him a “Bin Ladenist.”
Hitchens’s sneering remark has less directly to do with Orwell than it does with Reed’s critical take on US foreign policy following the 9/11 attacks. Reed penned the novel quickly in the wake of these attacks, and it represents them transparently: the plot culminates with the destruction of the “Twin Mills” in a spectacle engineered by a band of extremist beavers. In an interview with the New York Times, Reed traced his inspiration for the novel to the experience of watching the attacks on television: “‘I thought, ‘Why would they do this to us?’ The twin towers attack showed us that something is wrong with our system, too.” This was, for many, an uncomfortable conclusion, and thus one particularly hostile reviewer accused Reed of “whitewash[ing] theocratic fascism” and even “blaming the victim.” Both this statement and Hitchens’s call to mind a well-known phrase from that era: “with us or against us.”
Snowball’s Chance is thus very much a product of its immediate environment. Ten years later, however, it still feels current. This feeling owes to how the novel transcends its particular circumstances to offer insights into some of the more durable aspects of contemporary capitalism. For example, the three-pronged junta that governs the farm—pigs, dogs, and goats—neatly corresponds, in our own world, to the confluence of the political class, the army and police, and the technocratic apparatus that both designs and justifies the policies of the former. All that’s missing from this picture is the media, but Reed has that locked down as well: the Daily Trotter and a tabloid called Canary produce a steady stream of infotainment and official misinformation. The picture Reed paints joins hard and soft power, effectively capturing the blend of coercion, manufactured consent, and embodied practice that props up the capitalist system.
The alliance of political operatives, repressive agents, and an official intelligentsia, all of them fawned over by a docile press, dominates our corporatist era—both in the United States and beyond. And indeed, the poignancy of Reed’s portrait of this consortium of interests makes his critique resonate with many different national contexts. Snowball’s Chance is, on the one hand, quite clearly set in the United States, but on the other it could be taking place almost anywhere. After all, wasn’t Animal Farm a fable of the USSR? Thus in a somewhat removed way Snowball’s Chance is also about Russia and the rise of post-Soviet crony capitalism. In fact, the power structure that the novel represents is widespread enough that the farm sometimes feels like post-coup Chile or Argentina, or Deng Xiaoping’s China, or Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Minus the most explicit references to the United States, Snowball’s Chance broadly allegorizes a global transition to neoliberal economic structures.
The animals have to be educated in the arts of good cheer, just as they are educated, throughout the novel, in the arts of living under capitalism.
That transition has revolved around the conquest and consolidation of power by an ascendant elite. But it’s also brought about more microscopic changes in our daily lives. Reed’s attention to these changes is one of the highlights of Snowball’s Chance. The novel is seeded with references to the empty pleasures of bland complacency among the older animals. One of its most insightful passages, for example, is when the animals learn to smile. “The hours of practice had been long and arduous,” we read, “but now, the hard work was paying off.” The occasion is a gathering in which Snowball is enumerating their triumphs, praising the animals’ way of life, their freedoms and comforts and longevity. “The scope of what we can have,” he trumpets, “is only limited by the scope of what we can want!” This orgy of narcissistic affirmation, a familiar scene to anyone who’s ever watched a political party’s national convention, concludes with the animals looking around and nodding in joyless but ecstatic self-satisfaction, each one, finally, “pulling his or her mouth and snout into that shape. A smile. They were all smiling!”
What’s most noteworthy isn’t that the animals smile, but rather that it doesn’t come naturally to them. The animals have to be educated in the arts of good cheer, just as they are educated, throughout the novel, in the arts of living under capitalism. This is about more than just walking on two legs; it’s also about whistling while you work. Snowball’s gambit is to turn the farm into a giant spectacle of happiness, and his Animal Fair represents more than just a place: it names an entire ethos. Slavoj Zizek famously summed that ethos up a few years before Reed’s novel appeared, affirming that the ethical touchstone of our era is enjoyment itself. The imperative is to find pleasure, often in the most asinine ways. “Enjoy Coca-Cola,” the ads used to say, and now they tell us to “Open Happiness.” Everything is permissible, and therefore everything must be done. “It’s all about enjoying life,” we hear Snowball say.
Of course, the imperative to enjoy doesn’t necessarily translate into meaningful action, and the obligation to find self-fulfillment through the accumulation of possessions and experiences is often paralyzing. The animals “could smoke, drink, or dream. One might even travel, if so inclined, and so fit, as to foray from one’s stall. And even were one not so inclined, or so fit, there was always the possibility of putting in another window.” Either way, the animals are nominally free. Whether they exercise this freedom out in the wide world or holed up in their air-conditioned stalls watching their window TVs is unimportant. What matters is that they enjoy themselves.
That anodyne merriment is the popular correlate of the entrenched power structure at the top. And it has a violent flip side, as we learn in the novel’s final pages. It ends on an ordinary Tuesday, with Animal Fair open as usual to the paying public. The ferris wheel is spinning like a film reel, its upper reaches offering “a spectacular view of the Twin Mills on the next hill, and the village across the road. A treacherous ferret suddenly takes action: he slits the neck of the ride’s operator, taking control and amping it up to top speed. Then two suicidal squirrels blow themselves up, sending the spinning wheel off its axis and over the hills toward the Twin Mills. The woodland creatures in the wheel’s cars—rabbits, geese, and squirrels—are elated, enraptured. We know how the story ends, just as we know the reaction of the animals when they realize the beavers’ culpability: “Revenge, justice, retaliation!” bellows Snowball, channeling the animals’ rage, which itself becomes a chorus: “Kill the beavers! Kill! Kill! Kill!” These are the novel’s final words.
This rage is the bloodthirsty underside of the animals’ banal comforts. Rage has long been a propeller of collective undertakings, and indeed, as Peter Sloterdijk notes in Rage and Time, the first line of western literature contains the word: “Of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, sing Goddess…” The thymotic impulse swells up, in more modern times, particularly around ethnicity and nationalism. And thus many of the animals in Snowball’s Chance react with aggressive xenophobia when new immigrants flood the farm, their impulses tempered only by the more inclusive, multicultural capitalism championed by others. And thus also the animals join voices in a common cry for war after the attack. Tamped down by the pleasures of consumption throughout the novel, rage overflows at the end.
Rage and enjoyment undergird the increased concentration of wealth and power by the pigs and their minions. And these are the aspects of Reed’s novel that most vividly correspond to the world beyond its pages—the world that we still inhabit ten years later. Snowball’s Chance remains, in this way, timely beyond its original context, as it reflects and denounces the conjunction of militarism, economic polarization, and gentle anomie that still defines our social horizon.
Craig Epplin is an assistant professor of Spanish at Portland State University, where he writes and teaches on the confluence of media, ecology, and literature in contemporary Latin America. He is also a translator and an editor at Rattapallax magazine. He keeps a research blog. Follow him there or on Twitter @craigepplin.