- The Artist as Vegetarian
Capping the first chapter of Eating Animals, the novelist's Jonathan Safran Foer's first—and, according to recent interviews, last—nonfiction book, is a parable-stature story recounted by Foer's grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. On the run from the Germans, she experienced a terrible, seemingly unappeasable hunger, scavenging for food and consuming refuse, feebly attempting to stave off the sickening, sick-making lack of sustenance. Ill, sore-covered, barely alive, she is offered a piece of meat by a kindly Russian farmer. "He saved your life," the young Foer marvels. "I didn't eat it," his grandmother replies, explaining that the meat in question was pork and therefore verboten to her. "If nothing matters," she says, if we do not honor our values, even if to disregard the demands of the conscience might be life-saving, "there's nothing to save." The story is effective not only in connecting Foer's interest in "eating animals" to Everything Is Illuminated (2002), his wunderkind debut novel much concerned with the Holocaust and the compromises and negotiations made necessary by and for survival, but also—and perhaps more importantly—in suggesting that his gifts as a novelist, his voice as a storyteller, are necessary to the telling of this particular story.
This particular story is, actually, twofold. Officially, Eating Animals is a piece of reportage, culled from copious reading and a few farm visits, painting a vividly horrid picture of factory farming. Because the evils of factory farming can by now hardly qualify as news, Foer's abilities as a writer are particularly relevant here; rather than attempt to astound with never-before-revealed disclosures, he wisely focuses on presenting the material in a compelling, attention-getting, attention-keeping way. To that end, we get a glossary of terms in a chapter called "Words / Meaning," and a number of shifts in perspective, including the narrative of a factory-farmer presented without comment.
Underneath this first, this official story—ofttold as it is—Eating Animals is, finally, a bildungsroman of sorts, the tale of how Jonathan Safran Foer became a vegetarian and realized his best, most conscientious self. Having repeatedly dabbled in vegetarianism, Foer finds himself on a blind date with the woman who would become his wife, who too has a history of scrupulous eating interspersed with carelessness. Together they resolve to be better, but then comes the wedding—and the guests, who, coming from afar, must have meat—and the honeymoon in Japan—where it would be a crime to abstain from fish—and life gets crazy and books are published and promises are forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until there is a new beginning, a new chance. Foer is about to become a father, so he "tid[ies] up the house, replacing long-dead light-bulbs, wiping windows, and filing papers. [He has his] glasses adjusted, [buys] a dozen pairs of white socks, install[s] a roof rack on top of the car and a 'dog/cargo divider' in the back, ha[s his] first physical in half a decade…and decide[s] to write a book about eating animals."
Foer's "book about eating animals" is not, he maintains, a case for vegetarianism, though he himself commits to a vegetarian diet after learning about the specifics of factory farming, which produces some 99 percent of the meat we eat. The horrors of the factory farm need little elaboration, and Eating Animals does not shy away from depicting not only the cruelty that efficiency and cost-saving demand (pregnant pigs are kept in crates so small, movement is impossible), but also the sheer grossness (upwards of 95 percent of chickens become infected with E. coli, an indicator of fecal contamination) of the meat produced in such circumstances. In this way, it is certainly successful in making the reader give swearing off meat some serious consideration, as surely any book making use of the following detail must be:
A pig farmer in Canada killed dozens of women, hanging them on the meat hooks [End Page 23...