Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats

It's crazy, how many wonderful books there are out there. This post makes 48 books blogged about so far this year for me, though we're not through September yet, and more than two dozen unread volumes loiter in my office that I'm fully expecting to enjoy almost beyond measure. And too, there's a way in which the experience of a book fades once finished, returning at odd moments but still dissipating faster than you thought possible while you were caught up in the reading.

All of which means, among other things, that I should have blogged immediately about Ruth Ozeki's wonderful novel My Year of Meats, without waiting a few days for my thoughts to sort themselves out. I might feel easier if I had even the faintest idea of why it took me so long to get to this book, now 13 years in print, but nothing. No idea, and it was fantastic.

Jane Takagi-Little, a financially struggling documentary filmmaker, finds herself working on the pitch for a new Saturday-morning show for Japanese television, and subsequently working on the production of the show itself. Called My American Wife!, it's a barely veiled advertorial for American meat-packing interests, the Beef Export and Trade Syndicate (or BEEF-EX). Over the course of a year, the program is intended to film an American wife in each of the 50 states, rhapsodizing about meat's place in her family and then cooking something that the watching Japanese wives would then serve to their husbands and families.

As the novel goes on, Jane learns more and more about the meat industry (toxic residue! slaughterhouses! collateral human illness!), and her role in the production - already difficult from her ugly relationship with its sponsor's minder, Joichi "John" Ueno - becomes increasingly untenable.

Paired with Jane's story is that of Ueno's Japanese wife, Akiko, who's suffering intensely through her willing pursuit of what she understands as the ideal wifely ways for a Japanese woman. Her illness and injuries and anxieties are horribly, wonderfully portrayed by Ozeki, so even though we spend less time with Akiko, she comes across nonetheless as a rich, complicated character. I worried about her fate from quite early in my reading, and I was gratified to see that Ozeki makes room for character change, even if that's complicated as well (and I'm not going to tell you what happens there!).

It's a Causes Novel, certainly, even though Ozeki said in my Book Club edition's post-novel interview that she didn't think of it that way until a marketing meeting after it was almost on the market. Gender oppression in Japan (and the US, though differently); unethical food production practices driven by malicious managers and ignorant workers; the disgusting treatment of animals; sexual violence of various kinds (at least three): any summary of the book's content is liable to make it seem preachy or idea-driven, unless you emphasize the characters the way I did above, and yet the causes appear organically in what feels to me like a plot-driven novel that's heavy on characterization.

In a lot of ways, this is maybe what environmentalist literature needs to look like if it's going to generate much of an audience: funny, smart, not overtly educational but full of information. Definitely using this one in my January course on hybridity in environment and literature!


theresa said…
I loved All Over Creation. Will look for this too. She's a lovely writer.

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