Review: MEAT by Joseph D'Lacey
Monday, February 18, 2008
MEAT by Joseph D'Lacey
Paperback, 343 pages
MEAT is a strangely compelling read. Despite weaknesses in the narrative, it draws the reader in, shows them a bizarre yet intriguing world, and makes them read to the very last page.
It's frustrating, though. D'Lacey works hard to make you slowly realise for yourself who the 'cattle' are, but the publishers know no such subtlety--it's practically trumpeted on the cover. There's only one possiblity after that, and you wonder sometimes why D'Lacey doesn't just come out and say it. Saving the revelation for the end, when we've known about it for pages and pages, doesn't work. Art vied with commerce, I suspect, and commerce won.
Slaughterman Richard Shanti works the bolt gun, stunning these 'cattle' at the MMP (meat processing plant) day in, day out. They call him 'Ice Pick' because he can look into the cattle's eyes, say a prayer, and stun them without flinching. If he can't sustain this, or conceal his growing interest in the cattle as individuals, he'll be joining them in the slaughter pens. But he can, it seems. He's also being investigated by a Parson from the Church that's vying with MMP for control of the small, isolated town that depends on the slaughterhouse for food--but he doesn't know this. There's a revolution being planned by a small group of dissidents, but it's mostly underground. So what's driving the story?
Ultimately, it's the writing. D'Lacey makes you look. The realistic details of the slaughterhouse are at odds with the unlikelihood that a town surrounded by a post-nuclear wasteland would indulge in this highly-inefficient method of food production. There are ten thousand meat animals being fed by cereal grown on arable land that shrinks every year. For me, it just doesn't add up. Also, where does the rice come from? If D'Lacey hadn't worked so hard to convince us of the details, such flaws might more easily be passed over. But on another level, it doesn't matter. We're grounded in the small realities of a fantastic world where it's possible to eschew meat and 'eat God', deriving both nutrition and virtue from light and air. Whether this is genetic mutation, divine intercession or simply self-delusion, doesn't matter. We're not in the real world here--we, and the characters, are inhabiting a fantastical nightmare.
Women don't do well in this dystopia. Shanti's wife betrays him for meat, the Parson only gains redemption at the moment of death, and only Shanti's twin daughters are deemed sufficiently worth saving at the end. Unfortunately, they're virtually ciphers. The truly heroic figures are Shanti himself, who runs miles every day to try to expiate his guilt, and Collins, leader of the dissidents.
The novel ends with a series of revelations, two of which have been obvious for most of the novel, and one that comes as a complete surprise. As this implies, the novel lacks subtlety. But it's a damn good read, for all that.
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