In the popular imagination, pigs simply exist to consume and to be consumed. We revile them because they are seen as gluttonous animals, indiscriminate in their pursuit for satiation, and because they are dirty, wallowing happily in their own filth. Johanna Stoberock’s novel Pigs uses these stereotypes—the rapacious, prosaic nature of these beasts—to amplify the grotesque impulse of want and greed inherent in both animal and man.
Pigs is set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic place and time, or at least on the lip of a dying Anthropocene. Situated at the heart of an unidentified island is a pigsty, where several large pigs live. They are fed the things the world discards into the ocean: belongings, radioactive waste, memories, and men. Four children labor to gather the refuse that washes up along the shore and transport it to the sty in order to keep the pigs fed and the world clean. They toil without thought; there is some unspoken but universally acknowledged understanding that this is just how the world works.
From the first page, this book reads like a holy text, heavily allegorical and laden with symbolism. The reader is keenly aware that they are being taught a lesson, even from the opening paragraphs. The prose is clear and uncomplicated, mirroring traditional religious literature and reinforcing the idea that this story is told from a child’s perspective. We know from centuries of study that often, the less complicated the sentence the more room there is for interpretation. Simplicity obfuscates itself by the very act of being observed. And Pigs looks deceptively simple.
At its heart, this book is about duality: poverty and wealth, child and adult, gold and garbage, man and animal. A malevolent group of adults live on the island as well, in a luxurious villa where they while away the days in vapid luxury. There’s an implicit understanding between the castes on the island about who fulfills which responsibilities and where they fall in the social hierarchy. Yet, as with many things left unspoken, no one is quite sure why things are the way they are. With each new question that arises, tensions deepen further. The children, as most children do, eventually grow to question why any bifurcation exists in the first place.
A girl named Luisa leads the other three children. Their world, the microcosm on that island, is upended when two unexpected pieces of debris wash ashore: Luisa’s twin brother, Eddie, and an adult who was lost at sea, Otis. When Luisa’s brother is found among the other refuse, some of the children face a new moral dilemma: Do human lives count as garbage? Others aren’t so reflective: “He’s garbage. Feed him to the pigs.”
Stoberock asks explicitly: What lives have value? When can you throw a person away? By presenting the conundrum of feeding a human to the pigs multiple times throughout the novel, be it Eddie or Otis or the other children or the crowd of adults, we question our own biases about which lives hold value. The anathema of murder exists across cultures, but in this world, on this beach, there is something implicitly menacing about the unknown. The children operate in such a harsh, unforgiving world, where each encounter with a new person or situation is often laden with monstrous consequences, that the reader comes to understand how one can be driven to throw away a life or even to murder. Potential is made of fear as much as it is made of hope. Can murder be justified by certain personalities, certain histories, or by certain bodies?
One of the children makes a case for sparing the life of the adult who washes ashore: “He’s a human being… He’s not garbage. Even the pigs know that. He’s a miracle. Don’t we have a responsibility to help him? If we don’t act, even when we’re afraid, how can we call ourselves human?”
The conflict that arises from both Otis’s and Eddie’s arrivals forms the hinge of the entire novel. The characters in Pigs constantly feel a tension as they decide when and how to act, heightened by an ever-present feeling of need: need for understanding, need for care and protection, need for each other. Despite the fear and hurt others inflict, every character in this novel wants desperately to connect with someone else—though we see over and over again that this is not how interactions play out. The children all want a parent, someone to take care of them. But the adults on the island are neglectful and violent. That is, until they find Otis.
Otis, the children discover, is an adult as lost and lonely as they are. He laments moments he’s wasted in life and what he’s lost along the way:
What he’d like to feed the pigs were the hours he’d wasted watching television, the times he’d snapped at his son for calling for a drink of water when he should have been asleep, the times when he said he had to be alone when he really wanted more than anything to be close to another person, the words that had formed inside him that he’d been too scared to say.
His relationship grows quickly with the pigs and, in turn, with the children. Playing heavily with allegory, Stoberock sets Otis up as the shepherd for some of the children, one who seems to offer protection. To them, he becomes a parent, even a god. But Stoberock reminds the reader that he is still very much a man, fallible and lost. When the adults blind him for trying to change the social structure of the island, Otis rages impotently at the sky like Lear out in the storm: “Why wasn’t the world storming around him? How could the winds not rise to match his heart? ‘Isn’t there anyone watching?’ he raged. ‘Isn’t there anyone who cares?’” Stoberock then gives Otis “flies… like a crown around his head,” making him a Christ-like figure without his faith. He repeatedly asks the world for rescue and laments for lost possibilities: “Who will save me? When will someone rescue me?”
So they all suffer, in some way, from abandonment—the children, Otis, the adults, the pigs, and the garbage. When Otis is injured, the children soon realize there is no rescue to be found within him. He is abandoned, too. They are all pieces of garbage thrown out to sea.
The detritus of our lives wash out to sea and up onto a beach. When does each piece, each memory, become lost to us? When does it start being garbage, and when does it stop? Stoberock reminds us of the first law of thermodynamics: energy can be transformed but cannot be created or destroyed. So the things we use to fill up our lives are energy. Bottles and papers and bits of food. People. Our garbage is energy. We know that it doesn’t disappear if you toss it out to sea or feed it to the pigs. It only transforms into something else. Like a child to an adult, or an ocean that feeds itself with rain.
Pigs highlights the disconnect between “[t]he world put[ting] its crap out in a bucket on the street for Monday’s pickup” and thinking that “that’s the same thing as making it disappear.” The pigs transform the garbage but are also “transformed garbage”—rejected and denigrated, yet always there in some form. But Stoberock also makes us wonder what would happen if something really went away. Throughout the novel, Otis is tormented by the life he left behind, by being forgotten by his wife and virtually unknown to his son. He comes to not exist in their lives or their memories and therefore, in essence, is erased from existence. His agony is less about the opportunities he threw away and more about not being anything to his family, not even a distant echo. Suddenly being thrown away, being “garbage,” becomes a better option than ceasing to exist entirely.
At the end of this beautiful and unsettling novel, the ocean finally clears from gray to white, a pure, holy color. But the whiteness turns out to be trash. Trash that has been accumulating in the ocean makes the world look sacred and new. By looking at the discarded, the mistakes, and the problems, the children are able to finally free themselves from their prison and give themselves their own salvation. In the end, Luisa is the key. She faces the shore and the vastness of the sea in order to lead them, as the pigs behind them wear pearls that gleam against their chests, rouged with blood. Against the white tide, the children learn that there is no promise of deliverance, only the promise of movement, what chances they choose to take and what chances they choose to throw away. The characters hold on to their pasts, the way we all do. Our pasts might move away from us across vast oceans of time, but through Pigs, we understand that “[i]t [is] a misunderstanding that anything was lost forever. It [is] a misunderstanding that anything ever really disappeared.”