A review of EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer
Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Safran Foer have made a living by choosing illiterates and children as the narrators of their commercial fiction. Such a writerly choice alleviates them of the responsibility of writing well. Now, in his most recent offering, EATING ANIMALS (2009), Mr. Foer writes in his own language for the first time in book form and still sounds very much like the rather dimwitted narrators of his novelistic fabrications.
Though it never fulfills its promise, EATING ANIMALS belongs to the genre of books that explore the ethics of meat-eating. Foer claims that his research into food production has been “enormous”  and “comprehensive” . But from a philological point of view, EATING ANIMALS is the scholarly equivalent to animal compost. How can the male Foer legitimately write and publish a book on the ethics of carnivory without so much as even mentioning the names of Peter Singer and Charles Patterson? A peal of thundering silence drowns out these extremely loud and incredibly imposing references. On page 258, Foer eschews direct statement, but the point is clear: “It might sound naive to suggest that whether you order a chicken patty or a veggie burger is a profoundly important decision. Then again, it certainly would have sounded fantastic if in the 1950s you were told that where you sat in a restaurant or on a bus could begin to uproot racism.” Yes, human rights are equated with animal rights, EXACTLY the equation set forward by Peter Singer thirty-four years ago. It does seem parricidal that no reference to Singer or Patterson is made.
Even worse, Foer’s handling of sources is suspect. He name-drops Walter Benjamin, tells us what Benjamin allegedly said, and then neglects to give us the citation information in the endnotes (he is referring to, but does not cite Benjamin’s 1934 essay on Franz Kafka). He implies that Kafka felt “shame” while visiting a Berlin aquarium merely because Benjamin finds shame as a motif in Kafka’s LITERARY work. He quotes Derrida twice in the book and gives, first, an inapplicable commentary on Derrida’s argument, and, secondly, dispenses with commentary altogether. In his endnote to the Benjamin-Kafka-Derrida passage, Foer writes: “The discussion of Benjamin, Derrida, and Kafka in this section is indebted to conversations with religion professor and critical theorist Aaron Gross” . This discussion, apparently, exonerates Foer of the necessity of reading Benjamin, Derrida, and Kafka himself — and of treating their works with care.
I would never dream of suggesting that Foer should have expatiated on Schopenhauer’s groundbreaking critique of Kantian ethics and its exclusion of animality — that would be effrontery on my part.
The prose style is not merely bad — it is abusively, appallingly, annoyingly, and aggressively bad. Foer thinks that “to aggravate” means “to irritate,” that “incredibly” means “extremely,” that the plural of “food” is “foods,” and that “inedible” is a noun. “To aggravate” [etymologically, “to make graver”] should never be used to signify “to irritate” in published prose; “incredibly” properly means “unbelievably” and only means “extremely” in colloquial language; those who think that the plural of “food” can EVER be “foods” are semiliterate simpletons and debasers of the English language. Shall we acquiesce to the mistaken idea that “inedible” is a noun?
Is it too much to ask the writer whose second novel was described by THE TIMES as “a work of genius” to pursue his research questions? And what ARE, precisely, his research questions? After an unhealthful serving of microwaved family anecdotes (always an easy and smarmy introduction), we get an inkling of what Foer’s point of departure might be, and it is all pretty familiar ground: “I simply wanted to know – for myself and my family – what meat IS. I wanted to know as concretely as possible. Where does it come from? How is it produced? How are animals treated, and to what extent does that matter? What are the economic, social, and environmental effects of eating animals?” . Well, what we get instead are heaps of digitalized information cut and pasted from the internet and fictionalized first-person narratives written from the perspective of animal-rights activists and factory farmers, the kind of “I-am-my-own-Greek-chorus” meta-fiction one often encounters when teaching first-year composition at a university. Excise the persona poetry, and you have a pamphlet.
It is only at the book’s premature climax that we come by something resembling a thesis. Foer endorses “eating with care.” Despite what he says, Foer does not “argue” for this position. Nor does he even explain it. He simply advocates what seems a fairly anodyne stance. He advocates vegetarianism and “another, wiser animal agriculture” and “more honorable omnivory” , without telling us what either of these last mentioned things might be.
There is nothing revolutionary or special about vegetarianism or hoping that animals will be treated without cruelty. Vegetarianism is surely good for animals, but does it make of the vegetarian a majestic figure? If this book is distinctive at all, it is merely because of the prefabricated consensus that surrounds it and the writer’s desperate efforts to persuade everyone that he is holier than the rest of us. One is reminded, in particular, of an anecdote that Foer tells of two friends who are hungry for hamburgers or “burgers,” as Foer calls them. One man gives in to the hamburger impulse; the other refuses to do so, for “there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment” [74; note the masculine pronoun]. In the end, EATING ANIMALS is an auto-hagiography, the memoir of a sacrificer of hamburgers who becomes holy by refusing to give in to his carnivorous impulses, the story of one man’s relationship to his own viscera.
Dr. Joseph Suglia