Book Review: My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki (1998)

October 27th, 2014 12:56 pm by mad mags

“Meat is the Message”

four out of five stars

(Trigger warning for violence against women and animals, including sexual assault and rape.)

When Jane Takagi-Little finally lands a job–producing a Japanese television show sponsored by BEEF-EX, an organization promoting the export of U.S. meats–she takes her crew on the road in search of all-American wives cooking all-American meat. Over the course of filming, though, Jane makes a few troubling discoveries about both. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, in Japan, Akiko Ueno watches My American Wife! and diligently prepares Coca-Cola Roast and Panfried Prairie Oysters for her husband, John, (the ad-agency rep for the show’s sponsor). As Akiko fills out his questionnaires, rating each show on Authenticity, Wholesomeness, and Deliciousness of Meat, certain ominous questions about her own life–and the fact that after each meal she has to go to the bathroom and throw up–begin to surface. A tale of love, global media, and the extraordinary events in the lives of two ordinary women, counterpointed by Sei Shonagon’s vibrant commentary, this first novel by filmmaker Ruth L. Ozeki–as insightful and moving as the novels of Amy Tan, as original as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. or John Irving–is a sparkling and original debut from a major new talent.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats. On impulse, I picked up a copy of the original hardcover edition at the dollar store. That was nearly a decade ago; in the intervening years I hemmed and hawed and wondered whether I really wanted to read a fictionalized account of a documentarian hired to promote meat – feed lots, kill floors, and all – after all. (I’m a vegan, and have devoured my fair share of nonfiction books about the animal agriculture industry already. Enough is enough.)

Thankfully, My Year of Meats isn’t nearly as grisly or gruesome as I expected. The bulk of animal exploitation involves the final product: cows (“Beef is Best!”), pigs (“Pork is Possible!”), and lambs (“Lamb is”…what? Lovely? I forget that particular slogan.), killed, dismembered, sanitized, and objectified for mass consumption. It’s easier to forget that your dinner once was a living, breathing, feeling being when it’s been stripped down and robbed of any semblance to the original owner/inhabitant of those thighs/breasts/drumsticks/etc. Like all functioning vegans, I’ve learned to compartmentalize and dissociate from this basic, everyday form of abuse. You have to, right? How else to live in this world without going mad?

But. As the months flip by on Jane Takagi-Little’s production calendar and she begins to delve deeper and deeper into the unseemly underbelly of animal ag. (as if there’s anything else!), she goes out of her way to document the process of meat production, rather than simply celebrating the finished product. The story’s climax arrives in a trip to a slaughterhouse, which is blessedly brief, but does touch upon the final few moments of an unnamed (beef? dairy?) cow’s short, sad life. The scene ends with a bloody mishap, and the participants – Jane; her cameramen, Suzuki and Oh; and the owners of the plant, John Dunn; his much-younger wife, Bunny; their five-year-old daughter, Rosie; and John’s adult son Gale – will never be the same.

Ozeki’s writing is captivating. She masterfully weaves together the narratives of a dozen or so characters (with Jane and Akiko dominating the story); gradually, the reader begins to identify similarities in their paths, and slowly the various threads come together, piece by piece, until they converge, intersecting in ways both unexpected and subversive.

My favorite example is Akiko: forced to watch and rate each episode of My American Wife! by her husband Joichi “John” Ueno (“Like John Wayne! Get it?”), she finds herself drawn to the more authentic episodes – those that reflect Jane’s desire for truth-telling over that of John, her boss at BEEF-EX, whose only goal is to sell meat. (His episodes play like a half-hour infomercial. Well, they all kind of do, but at least Jane’s attempts feature a diverse cast of Americans instead of pretty, white, middle-class heterosexual couples.) Fueled by both the television show and his brutish behavior, Akiko grows increasingly alienated; she deliberately starts throwing up in order to bring on amenorrhea, so that she need not worry about bringing children into her unhappy, abusive home. When she watches the episode starring Dyann and Lara, an interracial pair of vegetarian lesbians, Akiko begins to dream of a different life when where dared not before.

My chief complaint is almost tediously common to books written about nonhuman animals by non-vegans: namely, speciesism. Though we confine, torture, and kill animals to the tune of ten billion a year (that’s just in the animal ag. industry, and accounts for the United States alone), the concerns of nonhumans take a backseat. Jane’s investigation focuses on the effects of meat production on human health, almost to the exclusion of the animals themselves. (Environmental effects, such as desertification and the loss of the rainforest, merit about as much attention.) Yes, the unchecked use of antibiotics is eroding the effectiveness of antibiotics in humans, and sure, hormones contribute to cancer and decreased fertility; and while these issues are worthy of both outrage and action, it all kind of pales in comparison to what happens to those ten billion land animals, who are routinely enslaved, forcibly impregnated (only to have their babies stolen from them), otherwise tortured, and ultimately killed, simply because their co-earthlings like the way they and their bodily secretions taste.

To be fair, by story’s end, it seems as though Jane is making an effort to align her diet with her conscience – and with a mind for the “meat” as well as its consumers. For months after her visit to the Dunn slaughterhouse, Jane is haunted by the image of the dying cow: stunned (but not properly), shackled by one kicking leg, and hoisted upside-down, only to bleed out from a cut to the neck. Her face was the last thing Jane saw before she was knocked unconscious; when she came to some 18 hours later, it was only to find that her own world had come undone. Perhaps she felt a sense of kinship with the cow because they both lost something on that kill room floor. Whatever the reason, Jane begins to see her as an individual, instead of a conglomeration of meaty parts:

“Eventually, I slept again, and I dreamed about the slaughtered cow, hanging upside down, her life ebbing out of her as she rotated slowly. In my dream I saw her legs move in tandem, like she was running, and I realized she was dreaming of an endless green pasture at the edge of death, where she could gallop and graze forever.” (page 297)

Additionally, vegans, feminists, and (especially) vegan feminists will get a satisfied snort or two from the “sexy meat” / “women as meat” breadcrumbs Ozeki sprinkles throughout the set of My American Wife! At the overt behest of the BEEF-EX brass, the wives serve as stand-ins for the meat – delicious, sumptuous, and ripe for consumption – while eating meat is equated with masculinity and virility. Over at the Dunn ranch, little Rosie runs around wearing a “Babes for Beef!” t-shirt from the local Cowbelles Auxiliary. Sex and violence, all wrapped up in one tidy little package.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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2 Responses to “Book Review: My Year of Meats, Ruth Ozeki (1998)”

  1. 2014 Real Book Challenge: October Roundup » vegan daemon Says:

    […] My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (2003); reviewed here […]

  2. fuck yeah reading: 2014 books » vegan daemon Says:

    […] My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (2003); reviewed here […]

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