Storytelling Foer grown-ups

Jonathan Safran Foer’s first non-fiction work asks whether eating animals relates to our true moral nature

Foer’s book recounts the connections between the culture of mass consumption and the North American mindset of eating animals.
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Foer’s book recounts the connections between the culture of mass consumption and the North American mindset of eating animals.

The eating of animals isn’t a new subject, nor is it a subject suddenly illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book, appropriately titled Eating Animals.

What’s new is the malleability with which Foer approaches the facts of the farming practice, which steer away from the typically mundane animal-rights rhetoric into a compelling non-fiction piece.

In his 341-page book, Foer takes on the colossal task of telling a myriad of stories about animals’ lives.

Drawing on Foer’s style in the last two books, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Eating Animals attempts to stumble upon the direction of the future by introspection into the past.

In the first chapter—and less obviously throughout the rest of the book—Foer focuses on what he does best: storytelling. He recounts the stories of his youth, spent at his beloved grandmother’s house, all of which are complemented by memories of food and eating-related rituals. Each memory holds a clever twist: a heart-warming story that skillfully sets the tone for his pending discussion.

Before turning to the question of eating animals, Foer first examines the most basic ritual of eating in a broader sense, examining closely what we take as our commonsensical eating habits.

Eating, Foer writes, extends beyond the act of mere consumption; rather, it’s tied to one’s identity and, is plainly the act of storytelling. It’s herein that Foer’s skill lies: Eating Animals, though non-fiction, is a collection of stories at its core.

Foer begins his dietary journey by recounting the nutritional history throughout his own life, a flirtation between vegetarianism, a diet entirely consisting of his grandmother’s chicken with carrots and what Foer calls a “diet of conscientious inconsistency” in which he compares his general tendency for vegetarianism to someone who generally tends to tell the truth.

Mirroring the stylistic aspects of his last book—Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—Foer embellishes his storytelling with visual elements meant to convey the seriousness with which he hopes to entice readers. Those familiar with Foer’s visuals will recognize his tongue-in-cheek attempts to convey the horrors of factory farming using a plethora of lines and black ink.  Although the pages are teeming with research and facts—some of which one merely has to Google to stumble upon, it’s Foer’s fresh approach and subtle visuals that usher the debate into a new sphere.

In the preface to one chapter, Foer fills five pages with 21,000 letters that spell out the title of the upcoming chapter, Speechlessness/Influence. A caption follows the seemingly innocuous and even child-like manner Foer’s illustrations so often embody. It reads, “On average, Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 entire animals in a lifetime—one for every letter on the last five pages.”

Foer realizes the debate on eating animals isn’t new. Instead of presenting new information, he offers a fresh approach to thinking about food.

With his dry wit and underlying sarcasm, Foer’s book doesn’t preach vegetarianism—a refreshing twist on the ubiquitous guilt-inducing rhetoric. The reader isn’t forced into the threatening dichotomy between vegetarianism and eternal damnation, but is encouraged to draw his or her own conclusions based on rational and compelling discussion.

Foer’s book reminds the reader of what people often forget or at times deny—people are animals too. Albeit humans’ distinct capability for rational and social conducts, Foer points out it’s hard to produce a logical argument for why humans shouldn’t be eaten by a more intelligent species, should such a species exist.

Whereas so much of vegetarian literature is of an a-historical nature, Foer delves why people have come to eat what they eat and why family farming has nearly ceased to exist,creating a holistic understanding of eating patterns. He speaks of factory farming as a war which, in many respects, isn’t an unparallel concept. He writes of the deteriorating, diseased and inhumane ways in which animals are treated, inducing in many ways the visuals of the concentration camps his grandmother fled.

“What the industry figured out is that you don’t need healthy animals to make a profit,” he writes.

Foer’s book will remain relevant even to omnivores, as it’s a quest for understanding rather than conversion. Reading this book didn’t convert me into a vegetarian, but it illuminated my understanding of the diverse practice of eating animals.

Foer’s philosophical quest touches on universal subjects not restricted to animals—subjects like death, suffering, shame and care. He asks questions about these matters because he wants to understand their nature and in turn, the ways in which these discussions can be applied to our daily ethics.

Although I enjoyed Foer’s venture into non-fiction, which invokes disturbingly graphic images at times and an attempt to raise awareness for our eating practices without marginalizing meat-eaters, Foer’s talents are better suited to his fictional endeavors. The transition to Eating Animals is an important form of experimentation—as important as any in a writer’s career—but the high notes Foer hit in his past two novels distinguished him as one of America’s most talented fiction writers. Although Foer’s quirky visual aids and thought-provoking philosophical discussions make for a great read, his token creativity has been restricted by the genre, compromising what he does best for the sake of experimentation.

In Michiko Kakutani’s review of Foer’s book in the New York Times Book Review, Kakutani rightly questions Foer’s use of strong language like deeming the acts waged against animals as “atrocities” and “the shame of being human” he had felt. Kakutani questions such language in comparison to the grave significance of the global atrocities of the 21st century, implying an air of patronizing on Foer’s part.

Perhaps Foer’s use of extremely strong language is somewhat of a hyperbole, whose meaning is to convey the gravity of his findings, or perhaps it’s his most sincere reaction to a rather gruesome three-year research project.

Foer’s book doesn’t claim that animal suffering is the most important kind of suffering in the world, nor does it raise that question. Foer merely presents readers with the reality of food practices and the modest question of whether animal suffering is more important than the salmon-skin roll we occasionally crave.

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