Animals is fearless and cynical that way, and reading it will make you think twice before pulling that steak out of the freezer for tonight’s dinner. The premise alone is enough to make a compelling case for rethinking how our meat is raised and treated. But the narrative has multiple levels, and LePan is very keen to make his argument irrefutable. Though he ultimately succeeds, he sometimes overshoots his mark along the way.
In Animals, there is the story, which involves a young mongrel named Sam Clark, and then there is the story of the story, in which his older brother Broderick Clark recounts the conditions that make Sam’s odyssey so speculatively futuristic. Sam is the mongrel society wants to eat. He is the emotional heart of the story; he’s our front line in this world of the future. His brother Broderick is the novel’s head.
The novel is delivered as two manuscripts. The first is the autobiographical writing of writer Naomi Okun, who as a girl discovered the toddler Sam bundled up on her porch after his mother could no longer afford to keep him. The second features Broderick’s extensive essay on the industry and legalities of mongrel farming, and the details of how the future world could have devolved to such a state. There are copious footnotes added to the second manuscript. Broderick obviously knows a lot about the mass-farming industry, as does LePan, and the reader can’t help but feel that the character is little more than a mouthpiece for the author.
It’s not as if these industry specifics are strictly necessary for the enjoyment of the central story. Sam’s life as Naomi’s pet, and the divisions his presence exposes in the attitudes of her parents carry manifest social implications about what it means to be human in an age when a definition can turn a human into food. Here, LePan’s storytelling skills are on full display and the narrative brims with tension.
So it’s with some reluctance that the reader continuously breaks away from this more successful half of the novel to read the university-style lecture delivered by Broderick. The driving purpose behind all speculative fiction is ultimately the blend of story and argumentation. In Animals, that blend is denied. LePan has charged Sam with providing the fiction, while his brother has been handed the responsibility of doing the speculation.
Despite its structural issues, Animals is a brave and frequently fascinating debut novel, wrought with painful choices, harrowing journeys, and a deep passion for its subject matter. LePan has proven admirably that he has the chops to write a successful novel, or a work of non-fiction on the future of meat. One hopes that next time he won’t shoehorn them both into the same book. mRb