“After all, since the world began, we’ve been eating each other. If not symbolically, then we’ve been literally gorging on each other. The Transition has enabled us to be less hypocritical.”
Ordinarily I start novel reviews with a plot synopsis before offering any editorial comments or analysis. This is the way of reviews. Sometimes a non-fiction book warrants an anecdote of some sort that leads into the review, but discussion of novels generally requires insight on the plot to be meaningful.
I will get to the plot of Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh in a moment, but, before I get there, I want to make something very clear: this might be the most disturbing book I have ever read.
Tender is the Flesh follows Marcos, a man who has spent his entire career in the meat industry in an unnamed South American country that I suspect is meant to resemble Bazterrica’s home country of Argentina.
A virus deadly to humans swept through the animal kingdom at some point in the recent past. Animals could carry the disease without ill-effect but any human who ate contaminated meat or was scratched by an infected animal would die. Overnight, governments worldwide exterminated all animals that had a chance of interacting with humans. Humanity went vegan by necessity, much to the dissatisfaction of most people. Meat consumption, after all, is more a political statement than a biological necessity.
(Bazterrica includes a correct detail that humans often turn to meat for Vitamin B12, but it is a poor explanation for what happens in the novel given both that there are synthetic means of producing the nutrient and that people do this because humans can’t produce it.)
It was the first public scandal of its kind and instilled the idea in society that in the end, meat is meat, it doesn’t matter where it’s from.
Old taboos start to decay in this new zoologically-deficient world. People consumed other people in secret at first. Immigrants, migrants, and other marginalized people began to disappear, prompting cynical whispers that the virus was nothing more than a conspiracy to curb overpopulation. But norms change and, soon, human meat is an accepted part of people’s diet, with distinctions made between human cattle without names and citizens, the latter of whom can only be eaten in special circumstances. By the time that we meet Marcos, his career has changed from operating his family’s cattle slaughterhouse to being a manager at a slaughterhouse for the euphemistically-named “special meat” industry.
While he removes his soaked shirt, he tries to clear the persistent idea that this is what they are: humans bred as animals for consumption. He goes to the refrigerator and pours himself cold water. He drinks it slowly. His brain warns him that there are words that cover up the world. There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.
There are two ways to talk about Tender is the Flesh: the setting and the plot. Both are disturbing.
The greatest part of the horror in Tender is the Flesh builds out of the setting. I found that the inciting virus required a suspension of disbelief since its mechanics seemed rather improbable, but from that one point Bazterrica spins out a richly-imagined dystopia that is altogether too plausible given that its basic realities are transposed directly from the world of industrial meat, just adapted for humans. Thus we are given a tour of the breeding where the First Generation Pure grow up in captivity, their vocal cords removed “because meat doesn’t talk” and where impregnated females are often maimed so that they can’t kill the fetus so that it isn’t born into the hell, and to the processing centers where they are sedated, stunned, and killed.
But if the industrial side of special meat processing serves as the focal point of the novel, Bazterrica also introduces the “normal” sides of special meat consumption through parties held by Marcos’ sister Marisa and the seedier elements of the black market trade in human flesh. In a particularly grotesque examples of the latter, Marcos visits a particularly perverse establishment where, for a surcharge, a client can pay to eat the woman he had sex with and where celebrities can pay off their debts by signing themselves over to be prey in hunts.
The unrelenting bleakness of the setting only serves to underscore the trauma of the plot. Marcos’ wife Cecilia has recently left him, broken by the death of their baby Leo after years of trying to start a family. At the start of the novel, Marcos is simply going through the motions of life and trying to watch after his dying father, but things change when he receives the expensive gift of a First Generation Prime female to raise as domestic head. Marcos himself helped write the strict regulations governing domestic head since the meat industry has to keep a division between full people and meat people for the fiction to continue to exist and the idea of eating one’s own children is too horrific to contemplate. And yet, Marcos decides to first name this FGP Jasmine, then to bring her into the house, and, eventually, has sex with her in a way that suggests that he is trying to create a genuine relationship. When Jasmine becomes pregnant, the question seems to become whether one or both are going to suffer consequences from the regulators who keep trying to pry into what Marcos is hiding.
I will not reveal the final twist, but it was both shocking and perfectly in keeping with this bleak world.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is the trauma that pulses through nearly every character. Marcos, for instance, spends most of the novel going through life in almost a fugue state, which, in turn, colors the rest of the story. But this trauma plays out in the person of the nihilistic butcher, the tender-hearted job applicant at the processing plant, and a sister who seems to be disassociating from the reality of what she eats. The only ones who seem unaffected, Bazterrica suggests, are the sociopaths.
But this is a novel pregnant with ideas, such that other social commentaries dance beneath the surface of the trauma. Most obvious is the critique of industrial farming that inflicts so much of the trauma. Unsurprisingly, Bazterrica has talked about how her transition to vegetarianism informs, even while saying that meat informs her identity as a participant in a carnivorous society. Likewise, this commentary is bound up in a larger discussion of capitalistic consumption. Not unlike in our own world, meat in the novel serves is the ultimate marker of social status, whether one has access to it or whether one becomes it. The have nots are consumed first and all human flesh is transactional. Thus the reader is invited to consider where they might exist along this spectrum.
I finished Tender is the Flesh in April, but the end of semester busyness interfered with sitting down to write this. In the weeks since, I reread Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which my students loved more than I could have anticipated, and read Robert Graves I, Claudius, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Last White Man. I didn’t much care for I, Claudius, but I anticipate writing about the latter two books. I am now reading Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science and Umberto Eco’s Baudolino.