First-Time Novelist Ruth Ozeki Uses Rousing Fiction To Further Her Activist Agenda.
By Stephan Faris
AUGUST 3, 1998:
My Year of Meats, by Ruth L. Ozeki (Viking Press). Cloth, $29.95.
YOU'VE HEARD ALL the warnings: That red meat clogs your arteries, that it leads to heart disease and prostate cancer. That 55 square feet of rainforest are destroyed to produce one quarter-pound of beef. That feed animals are raised in horrifically overcrowded and unsanitary environments. That they do suffer when slaughtered. That meat consumption is one factor in global warming. That the animals you eat are pumped full of hormones, chemicals, and antibiotics, the latter of which seem likely to set us back to a pre-antibiotic age where bacterial infections run rampant and incurable. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
The story begins when Jane Takagi-Little, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, accepts an offer to be the American coordinator for the Japanese television series My American Wife! The show is sponsored by the Beef Export and Trade Syndicate, BEEF-EX. Each week the show features a new American family, and most importantly, a delicious meat recipe. By tapping into the Japanese people's love for all-good-things-American, the show aims to convert them into meat eaters. "Pork is Possible, but Beef is Best!"
Jane enjoys her work. At first, she tries to please her corporate bosses; but soon she's following her own agenda. In complete disregard for BEEF-EX's preference for "normal" Americans, one show stars West Texan Latinos while another features a dozen adopted Korean children. Things heat up at the Tokyo office, but Jane, feeling her oats, continues to mutiny, directing an episode featuring an interracial, vegetarian, lesbian couple. The shows are popular with her Japanese audience, receiving higher and higher ratings. The ad rep for the campaign, Joichi "John" Ueno, is dying to fire her, but her success makes her untouchable.
Meanwhile in Japan, John's wife Akiko dutifully watches the show. Every week she fills out a survey for her husband and then cooks the day's meat. John, perpetually dissatisfied with her efforts, becomes increasingly abusive. Akiko sees the American families on TV and wishes she could be part of them.
As the season continues, Jane wonders if she's doing enough. She keeps hearing about the horrors of hormone and antibiotic use in cattle breeding. As the evidence piles up, Jane deduces that growth hormones caused her own affliction; she has a misshapen uterus and can't bear children. Meanwhile, Akiko writes for advice. Her husband's abuse has become unbearable, and inspired by Jane's portrayal of real people, she wants out.
Jane realizes she's working against her own beliefs. In a flurry of guerrilla cinema, she films what she knows will be her last show: a daring exposé of the unethical and dangerous practices of the meat industry.
The plot seems contrived--all the puzzle pieces fit too neatly--but the book is nonetheless a fun read. Ozeki, who herself worked in film, accommodates the television viewer's attention span. She switches points of view often, flitting through a dozen different characters, and sometimes telling the story using faxes, letters, and scripts for the show. The book's tone is melodramatic yet light. Ozeki has a keen sense of humor which keeps the story's darker scenes from becoming oppressive.
Each chapter is introduced by a quote from The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon. Shônagon was a lady-in-waiting to the 11th-century Empress Sadako. Her Pillow Book is a collection of loosely organized notes and observations of the court life. Some of the notes are in list form: Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past, Squalid Things, Annoying Things, Things That Lose By Being Painted.
Since both Jane and Akiko are fans of Shônagon, her work is prominent throughout the text: Akiko starts her own pillow book, and at one point, Jane mentally adds herself to the list of People Who Look Pleased with Themselves. Ozeki, too, enjoys echoing Shônagon, inserting references liberally throughout the book. For instance, when first contacting Jane about My American Wives!, the Tokyo office sends lists of Desirable Things and Undesirable Things.
Ozeki must have written this book to make Oprah's Book of the Month Club. She pushes all the right buttons: race, gender, community, self-empowerment. And of course, there's the beef issue.
Recognizing that we are overexposed and therefore numbed to the arguments of artery clogging and animal rights, Ozeki sticks to the horrors of hormones and antibiotics which her book associates with impotence, birth defects, low sperm count, miscarriages, and accelerated maturation (a 5-year-old with breasts and pubic hair). Sometimes her evidence is anecdotal and rumored, but at others, Ozeki doesn't shy away from showing us the evidence: The scene with the 5-year-old is especially disturbing. It's enough to make the most devoted carnivore pause with fork in the air.
What she's saying isn't really new. So why do we still eat meat? Ozeki claims it's a survival mechanism: "If we can't act on knowledge, then we can't survive without ignorance...Ignorance becomes empowering because it enables people to live." Mired in the belief there is nothing we can do, it's little surprise that we do nothing to effect change.
Ozeki tries to mobilize her readers by giving the villain a face. The men of the meat industry are so evil it's easy to blame them for everything. (A cattle rancher molests his 5-year-old niece, and John shows his most loathsome face when he anally rapes Akiko.)
Perhaps Ozeki hopes that by building an enemy, she'll impart to the reader the will to act. Whether or not readers enjoy Ozeki's horrific tale, they'll unlikely forget the author's anti-beef arguments--or rather, her anti-beef imagery. Amarillo cattle ranchers, watch out.
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