In Don LePan’s dystopian novel, the animals are all extinct and the weaker people have taken their place in the food chain.
Let me begin by saying that it would be a mistake to judge Don LePan’s dystopian novel Animals solely on its prose. Whatever joy or interest one might find in Animals, it isn’t in the shock of language, the seduction of narrative, the pleasure of the text. Set after the widespread extinction of animal life on earth, Animals is a sometimes believable satire on the limits of factory farming, in which physically and intellectually disabled people are grown for the taste of their flesh. Re-categorized out of humanity, these “mongrels” or “chattels,” when they are not eaten, exist as pets for the bourgeoisie or as agricultural slave labor.
In proper novelistic fashion, LePan approaches this dystopia through the life of a chattel, Sam. LePan relates how Sam was abandoned by his overworked mother at the doorstep of Zayne and Carrie Stinson, a generic middle class couple nagged, by their daughter Naomi, into raising Sam as a pet. It is from here that the novel’s infernal machine unwinds, as Carrie begins to resent Sam and his influence on her daughter. While Carrie plans Sam’s disappearance, Naomi discovers that Sam is not a mongrel at all, but only deaf. The rest is rather tragic.
But LePan is not really devoted to this tragedy. He is more interested in politics. This story, provocative as it is, is perpetually interrupted by the novel’s fictional editor, Broderick, who gives us, in broad strokes, the history of how humans came to be “chattels.” Written with quasi-academic clarity, these interruptions carry the novel’s message—that factory farming is an outrage. In what might be read as a confession from LePan himself, Broderick declares, “I am unashamedly a man of fact rather than of the imagination.” Later, after another eight-page interruption, he admits, “I have no doubt spent far too long on the history and the economics—the big picture—when I know what many of you are interested in is the narrative of individual lives.”
Nevertheless, it is the big picture—the economic incentives for factory farming—to which Animals is committed; and as LePan shuttles between history and fiction, he refuses to let a disturbing and tragic story speak for itself. E.O. Wilson and Ralph Nader, two other admirable public moralists, have also recently tried their hand at novels; like those books, Animals sometimes comes across as intellectual slumming, a nonserious supplement to the real work of political nonfiction.
To be fair, this is something LePan admits: The ancestor of this novel, mentioned directly at least three times, is not Orwell or Huxley or Zamyatin or Atwood, but Peter Singer’s great work of nonfiction, Animal Liberation. So LePan is not an aesthete—in this case, good for him. Animals reminds us—or teaches us—what most of us should already know: that it is possible (and even necessary) to speak of the genocide of animals. Like its equivalent outrage, sweatshop labor, factory farming seems to be awfully resistent to activism; but even if it seems unlikely to go away any time soon, we should at least know it for what it is.
As LePan tells us, the line between what is human and what is animal, often assumed to be natural or “scientific,” is always shifting to accommodate or exclude genders, sexualities, bodies, or races. Animals angrily rejects the legitimacy of these arbitrary lines, which strangely oppose one species against millions of others and justify an industrialized violence that seems to be getting worse. At a time when the only public criticism of a bacon burger with chicken breasts for buns is that it might be harmful to human health, I honestly wish that there were more writers like Don LePan.