A Quill Pen

My Year of Meats

by Ruth Ozeki

1 March 2006 book review
by Collie Collier

This is an enjoyable story exploring the increasingly cloudy line between publicly produced fact and fiction. Metaphorical bridges and shattered borders abound in the story. The author's protagonist is a half-Japanese, half-American documentarian who discovers life can imitate art as often as art imitates life. As she notes herself, "Although my heart was set on being a documentarian, it seems I was more useful as a go-between, a cultural pimp, selling off the vast illusion of American to a cramped population on that small string of Pacific islands."

The entree

Benevolent deception is the order of the day, whether in the creation in America of a visually appealing TV cooking show for Japan; the emphasis (or lack thereof) on the message desired by the program's Japanese meat-importing sponsor; the documentarian's psychosomatic refusal of, as well as possible victimization by, the very issues she finds herself reluctantly tracing. Even basic issues such as familial support, sexual exploitation, polite ignorance, or marital fidelity are repeatedly examined, broken, and occasionally mended within the story.

The story's characters are almost claustrophobically closely intertwined. The abusive boss's infertile wife seeks pregnancy advice from the documentarian, the wives the documentarian interviews weave repeatedly in and out of her life, her supposedly secret lover (an independent musician) is well known to her camera crew, the camera crew as well as her immediate boss love big blonde American girls and big blonde porn, and through it all is woven the concept of meat -- meat as a synonym for virility, for an available woman, for capitalist excess, for progress. As is constantly emphasized: Meat is the message.

Side dishes

There are lots of cultural memes running through this story as well, and the author must juggle them all adroitly in order to come up with an inspiring and upbeat tale. Indeed, she performs a rather difficult routine: delivering a morality tale without becoming pedantic, accusatory, or heavy handed. The swift ease of all the threads coming together into a happy ending rings a little untrue to me, but then I'm a cynic when it comes to the (un)reality of actual societal change.

One of the most fascinating moments in the book occurs when the heroine realizes:

Information about toxicity in food is widely available, but people don't want to hear it. ...

Coming at us like this -- in waves, massed and unbreachable -- knowledge becomes symbolic of our disempowerment -- becomes bad knowledge -- so we deny it, riding its crest until it subsides from consciousness. I have heard myself protesting, "I didn't know!" but this is not true. Of course I knew... Not a lot, perhaps, but I knew a little. I knew enough. But I needed a job. So when My American Wife! [the TV show] was offered to me, I chose to ignore what I knew. "Ignorance." In this root sense, ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence.

I would like to think of my "ignorance" less as a personal failing and more as a massive cultural trend, an example of doubling, of psychic numbing... If we can't act on knowledge, then we can't survive without ignorance. So we cultivate the ignorance, go to great lengths to celebrate it, even.

The faux-dumb aesthetic that dominates TV and Hollywood must be about this. Fed on a media diet of really bad news, we live in a perpetual state of repressed panic. We are paralyzed by bad knowledge, from which the only escape is playing dumb. Ignorance becomes empowering because it enables people to live. Stupidity becomes practice, a political statement. Our collective norm. [emphasis mine]

In the US, it appears knowledge has become equated with geekiness, nerdiness, impotence -- and consequently studied ignorance has become "chic." Since we can't act authoritatively on our knowledge, then we choose to "not-act" through deliberately cultivated ignorance. Practiced self-deception and helplessness: is this truly the fate we desire for ourselves?


Was I changed by the story? Probably not to the extent of becoming vegetarian; I like a bit of meat in my diet. Am I now a bit more aware of possible issues with corporately produced pabulum, be it food or entertainment? I can't say -- I've been a skeptic of so-called corporate benevolence for many years now, to the extent that I no longer bother watching TV or most other corporately produced media. So I'm not sure my extant wariness of corporations was necessarily increased by this story.

Was the story entertaining, and did it make me think? Yes; the author is clever and enjoyable, writing with a light, swift, entertaining style which still catches you up in reflection if you choose to consider the embedded implications.