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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

She Skewers Beef and Those Who Eat It

MY YEAR OF MEATS by Ruth L. Ozeki; Viking $23.95, 366 pages

June 03, 1998|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

The agreeably awkward, slightly off-English title seems to promise a fictional excursion; surely "My Year of Meats" is at least part fanciful and is going to provide an air hop 'round and about its Japanese and American worlds. No fancy, it turns out; only meat.

Many years ago, a restaurant of any pretension would serve up its lamb chops wearing crimped paper hats on the rib ends. The fictional elements in Ruth Ozeki's book, its plot and characters are a paper cutout, a lacy handle for angry thoughts about the grossness and dangers of contemporary meat, and the gross dangerousness of those who furnish it.

Upton Sinclair--muckraker of the Chicago stockyards--in a doily. The doily doesn't do. Ozeki's flimsy and didactic fictionalizing in no way survives the burden of her denunciations.

Starting with meat and meat-handling, these extend to the cloddishness of Middle America, the chauvinist tyranny of Japanese husbands and the world of media and promotion. By contrast, she elevates ethnic minorities and cooking, vegetarianism, lesbianism, adoptive parenting and, for her heroine, the one really acceptable form of meat. He is a tall, dark, rugged, famous and rich pop musician who appreciates Mahler and is achingly attuned to female requirements.

The heroine is Jane, whose father is American and mother is Japanese. A documentary filmmaker dreaming of cultural bridge-building, she is desperately hard up. Accordingly, she welcomes an offer to produce a year's worth of half-hour documentaries showing American life on Japanese television. It's not only the money; perhaps it can be a bridge.

A dental bridge, it turns out. The project is sponsored by the Beef Export Council. Each film is to portray a nice, normal American family eating lots of meat. Japanese housewives, a survey reportedly shows, romanticize Middle America. Perhaps they too will begin to clamor for steak.

The notion holds only brief satiric promise. A Midwestern housewife pours Coca-Cola and canned mushroom soup over a rump steak and bakes it for three hours. In Tokyo, Akiko watches, prepares the same horror and dutifully eats it. Akiko, "so thin her bones hurt," is following orders. Her husband, Juichi, is the account executive for the Japanese advertising company handling the program. Bullied--and bulimic--she is supposed to provide feedback. She throws up. More bullying, more bulimia.

"Meats" cuts back and forth between Jane and Akiko as they work up parallel revolts. Jane presses for episodes that show a wider range of Americans and American meals. She does a Mexican American farm family and their beef tacos, then goes more dangerously to a huge Louisiana family--11 adopted children of all races and nationalities--with Creole recipes.

Akiko serves all these foods to the increasing indignation of Juichi. He is outraged to see the Creole husband doing the cooking and, still worse, to see Korean kids among the children instead of tow-heads. When Akiko cooks a lamb recipe offered by an American girl in a wheelchair, Juichi throws the dish on the floor, screaming that it comes from Australia instead of the United States. A vegetarian dinner prepared by a lesbian couple in Massachusetts gets Jane temporarily fired and subjects Akiko to ever more horrific matrimonial brutalities.

There is a double climax. Jane sneak-directs a grisly documentary showing dreadful scenes at the slaughterhouse and the freakish effects of antibiotics and growth hormones on animals and humans. She films, asleep and nude, the 5-year-old daughter of one cattle operator; the child has breasts and pubic hair.

Akiko, who has gotten in touch with Jane, flees to the United States. She takes refuge with the lesbian couple, announcing that she wants to live their "happy life." Jane's documentary, subject of a fierce television bidding war, is a huge success. She and her lover thrive; Juichi and a depraved cattle-fattening operator languish. The good are happy, the others less so.

Ozeki's slaughterhouse scenes are vivid, and she has summarized in straightforward language some striking material about the damage done to meat and its consumers by factory farming and artificial growth products. But her writing is awkward and, in its periodic bits of uplift, inflated. Her characters are not so much cartoons as billboards. The bridge she erects in this heavy-handed fable is not between two cultures but among islets in an archipelago of cultural right-thinking.

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