My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
Viking Press, 1998
Whenever I get into a funk about writing, when I feel like it’s ultimately a wasteful self-indulgence that should be replaced by doing real political activism, I remind myself of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. A novelistic exposé of the slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants of Chicago written in 1905, that book led to the formation of the USDA and the inspection of meat for sale to consumers. Not only was the book socially pivotal, it was riveting: I gulped it down whole in one sleepless and very memorable night. Well, move over, Sinclair: My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki updates The Jungle, taking us into contemporary breeding grounds of American meat, an area where the USDA has yet to exercise control.
For the first hundred pages or so, MYOM appears to be nothing more than a bizarrely entertaining romp. Jane Takagi-Little, born of an American father and Japanese mother, is hired to produce a show for Japanese television called My American Wife, sponsored by a Texan outfit called BEEF-EX–a show whose explicit purpose is to replace sushi with hearty American beef on Japanese dinner plates. Jane is in charge of finding Stepford wives in pristine American homes and teaching them to turn raw beef into mouth-watering cooking-show presentations to be later beamed into Japanese homes. During the first shoots of perky Midwesterners pouring Coca Cola over rump roasts, Jane is amused by her adventure, but she soon wearies of the phony perfect-family image, and tries to subvert the show with more diverse types. A biracial lesbian couple in Northhampton, vegetarians, commit the ultimate taboo: they whip up a meatless pasta primavera for the program, almost costing Jane her job.
Jane’s testy boss, Joicho Ueno, dreamed up the program in the hopes of fattening up his wife Akiko, who has failed to conceive. He is convinced that if Akiko eats a hearty American diet, fertility will follow, and he orders her to watch the program, prepare the meals, and rate the shows for authenticity and wholesomeness. Alas, his plan backfires: Akiko vomits up the Coca-Cola rumps and beef fudge, and becomes enamored of the lesbian lifestyle. When Ueno starts beating her, she contacts Jane for help.
The topic of fertility, pregnancy, and birth is seamlessly woven into the novel–and, more significantly, into the American way of eating. As Jane learns more and more about the cattle-raising industry, she pushes the envelope, purposely filming a cattle farm where 20,000 cows live in filthy inhumane conditions and are injected with drugs both legal and not. Ozeki’s description of the cow slaughtering is as harrowing as anything in The Jungle, and when Jane’s footage exposes the brutality and rampant abuses in the industry, she is finally fired.
Like The Jungle, MYOM is first and foremost a good read. The writing never deteriorates into propaganda….ah, but it is propaganda–and that’s the point. The reader never feels preached at, but by the end of the book almost certainly reassesses his or her eating habits, for starters.
Unlike the good novelist, reviewers are allowed to preach, so here I go: My Year of Meats is the kind of grand fiction that used to be the stuff of best-seller lists. It’s not mindless escapism, but it is a compelling page-turner. It doesn’t offer a phony world vision removed from the ordinary reader’s life, yet it transports us to places with which most of us are unfamiliar. We may not know people exactly like Akiko, but her motivations and emotions are universal. Most important, MYOM is no exercise in self-indulgence or experimental obscurity: while thoroughly fresh and contemporary, it’s a book molded in the best novelistic tradition by a writer who has something she passionately wants to communicate, and she does so with art and grace.