Lucy and Todd

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Joyce Carol Oates — The Lost Landscape

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on September 21, 2015 at 1:35 pm

Dorothy Parker said she’d rather cut her own throat with a blunt knife than write a memoir. This seems good advice to all. Joyce Carol Oates has written oodles of books, including memoirs. No Pulitzer has yet accrued, but the Guinness Book of Records must be hammering on the door. Oates is the willing recipient of banquets, bursaries, honorary doctorates, TV crews and film adaptations of her work. Her writing – abundant, humourless, sentimental and enragingly circular – has a crass way of exploiting violence and murder as highly marketable subject matter. But, as H. L. Mencken noted, ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public’.

Then there’s her habit of repetition. In The Lost Landscape this foible is beyond belief. Even if Oates herself didn’t want to bother turning the numerous, previously published autobiographical articles here into a coherent book, her editor(s) could have helped her. To paraphrase:

I was born and brought up in Millersport, New York State. I lived on a farm on Transit Road, the rural stretch of Transit Road, with my maternal grandparents, who were Hungarian, and my parents, who loved me. My father Fred Oates was a sign-painter when he wasn’t working at the Harrison Radiator factory in Lockport, seven miles from Millersport. I always call him Fred Oates.

My Hungarian grandmother was heavyset and Hungarian and spoke little English; she made noodles instead. Hungarian noodles. My paternal grandmother Blanche Morgenstern lived seven miles away in Lockport. My grandmother Blanche Morgenstern helped me get a library card and piano lessons, and gave me books and a Remington typewriter. My grandmother Blanche Morgenstern gave me a Remington typewriter for my fourteenth birthday.

On the farm were red chickens who pecked each other and rolled in the dirt to get rid of mites. One red chicken was called Happy Chicken. [Happy Chicken wrote a whole excruciating chapter of this book – Ed.] I loved Happy Chicken. I told Happy Chicken I loved him. Often. I would hold him and say, I love you, Happy Chicken. Again and again. And again! Happy Chicken pecked at the other chickens and rolled in the dirt on our farm on a rural stretch of Transit Road in Millersport, where I lived with my parents and my Hungarian grandfather and my heavyset Hungarian grandmother who spoke mostly Hungarian and made noodles. She put them in the chicken soup. She put Happy Chicken in there too. I think. I will never know.

Everyone in the family was very attractive, and I closely resembled them. I went to a one-room schoolhouse in Millersport. It was a one-room schoolhouse. I got good grades there and at all the educational establishments I attended. I was destined to be a writer, because I wrote books as a child, like the Brontës. I wrote many books as a child. (And many more as an adult.) I also drew a lot of pictures of cats and chickens. Fred Oates worked at the Harrison Radiator factory in Lockport seven miles away, and painted signs. For many years Fred Oates’s signs lined Transit Road all the way to Lockport, seven miles away. Fred Oates painted them at our farm on the rural stretch of Transit Road. In Millersport. Where I drew chickens.

To save you the trouble of reading this book, here are the salient facts: Joyce Carol Oates had a harsh upbringing on that farm. An only child until she was five and a half, she spent much of her time hiding and, later, reading. The farm was not a success. Those chickens kept getting run over on Transit Road. Fred Oates tried raising pigs, but the meat was inedible. The pear orchard was a pain in the neck. Why did her grandfather buy a farm with a pear orchard, Oates moans. Pears ripen and rot too suddenly. Apples would have been the thing.

And other regrets – from friends who let her down by going nuts or committing suicide, to the fact that in their eighties her parents died. Her first husband Ray Smith, whose name (she continually reminds us) was Ray Smith, died too after forty years of marriage. Oates suffers from insomnia and tachycardia. But her most notable sorrow – and here the writing does wake up a little, there’s so much anger under the surface – is that her sister was severely autistic. Her parents knocked themselves out caring for her until she became too violent to have at home. Oates successfully conveys both her parents’s anguish and her own ambivalence.

There are vivid regions of this unmappable book. Oates’s list of terrible American foods has charm, as does a recollection of the dangerous outdoor activities of country kids. There’s a poignant passage on the many ways she attempted to make money as a child: she sold farm produce, hawked jars of Noxzema or The Reader’s Digest door-to-door, constructed costume jewelry, crêpe paper tulips and daffodils, and plaster of Paris bowls, she jigsawed lawn ornaments, singed quaint decorations onto wood, and grew jumbo strawberries.

The book is made up of short chapters, many of them readable, but there’s not one whole piece that is consistently good. Oates has a habit of inertia, restraining the action so that nothing ever happens. She disses Edgar Allan Poe for being ‘belabored…formal, tortuous, turgid if not opaque’, but this is a pretty good description of her own prose. The writing’s so flat, wandery , contentless and uninformative, you wonder just what it is she’s trying to hide. [Come back, Happy Chicken! All is forgiven. – Ed.]

It takes twenty chapters just to get some idea how she, and her syntax, tick. Her lavish punctuation gives, the, writing (a) halting; quality. She has a dispiriting love of parentheses (all of life is a parenthesis for her). And how about this for sentence structure: ‘these immigrants were desperately poor people of the class of those about whom Upton Sinclair wrote…’? Old Upton couldn’t have put it better himself. Her declared allegiance to James Joyce is unfathomable – what can a prolix waffler possibly get out of Modernism’s meticulous, succinct, witty, humane, artistic genius?

Though her overall stance is arrogant, her vocabulary is low-brow – apart from the typos (Joyce might have liked her accidental word, ‘ ominoua ’). Without warning she’ll abruptly break free from a tangle of awkward sentence fragments to intone in a lofty patrician vein about Catholicism, race riots or psychology; or issue platitudes like, ‘We had all been prepared for her death and yet–you are never prepared.’ For many years a professor at Princeton, she makes every effort to educate us: ‘The root of the word memoir is memory.’‘Harvesttime is the time of reaping what you have sown.’ And, most peculiarly, ‘A house is a structural arrangement of space, geometrically laid out to provide what are called rooms.’

Don’t get her started on her own writing! ‘In much of my fiction there is a simulacrum of the “confessional” but to interpret it in these terms is misleading. Not literal transcription but emotional transcription is the way of the writer.’ The writer. She’s always talking about herself in the Third Person. It’s weird. Back to the wood-burning kit with you, Oates.


(This review first appeared in The Herald, September 19, 2015)

Farmageddon — Philip Lymbery (& Isabel Oakeshott)

In Stuff We Like on June 16, 2014 at 12:18 pm

I just read this book about factory farming, and highly recommend it. I don’t find it easy to process nonfiction at the best of times, but this book was especially hard to take because it’s so sad. It’s no fun to hear about the stress cows are put through, only to die at half the age they should or Mao’s insistence on the annihilation of sparrows. But this is what’s been going on. Rainforests are stolen from native peoples in order to grow GM soya for cattle. Wildlife is in worldwide decline. The mega pig farms around La Gloria in Mexico, now notorious as the spot where the H1N1 virus began, are a source of widespread poverty and disease. And there are many, many other examples of human indifference, even outright objection, to life on earth.

According to the campaign group Animal Equality, things are even worse than Farmageddon claims. There’s so much cruelty involved even in free-range farming methods (including the grinding up alive of newborn chicks deemed surplus to requirements) they would probably say Lymbery doesn’t go far enough. But his book, linked to a documentary of the same name that he’s produced, forms a good basis for thinking about the whole issue, and much effort has been put into making it readable. Every chapter starts with a personal story, about Lymbery or someone he meets, that eases you into the more abstract political and philosophical questions.

Philip Lymbery is the head of Compassion in World Farming. Despite the horror stories he tells, he doesn’t insist on veganism: he maintains a kindly stance and tries to be fair to the farming industry whenever possible. But he is vehemently opposed to mass production, and does NOT see it as the only economically viable way to feed the world. Quite the reverse. He mildly recommends that for the sake of our own health as well as that of animals and the environment, we should eat meat less often and, when we do, make sure it’s grass-fed (allowed to roam outdoors) and organic (spared growth hormones and pre-emptive antibiotics). We should also stop wasting food, he says: ‘half the food produced worldwide is squandered – binned, left to rot or fed to farm animals’. A quarter of UK food is thrown away; a third in the US.

I’ve long thought over-population was the real impediment to feeding the world, but it’s not just human numbers that are rising alarmingly. The UN predicts the number of livestock will go up from the current 70 billion slaughtered every year to 120 billion by 2050. Most of these deaths now involve unfathomable amounts of pain, distress, injustice and disrespect inflicted on animals. There are profiteers who think they can do whatever they like, to animals, to our air, our land, our water, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! These things cannot ultimately be OWNED by anyone – but they have been stolen.

We are never usually told what conditions are really like for animals on farms. Products are labelled ‘farm-fresh’ to reassure us, and city farms painstakingly promote the idea of traditional farming techniques and sentiments. It’s all a lie. More and more of our food originates in mega-prisons. It’s no accident that factory farms resemble concentration camps: that’s exactly what they are. ‘Much of the meat on many supermarket shelves has a dirty secret,’ writes Lymbery. ‘The way it was produced.’ Along with the illusion of contentment and cud-chewing, there is an illusion of cheapness too, promoted by supermarkets, that ignores the human, animal and environmental costs: from super bugs to suicide, poverty, land-grabbing, climate change, pollution, water shortages, starvation, and animal mistreatment (which is ingrained in the industry as if it were an absolute requirement). Those whopper bonus super-duper special-offer chicken deals actually come at a very high price.

The philosophy behind industrial farming was cracked from the start, founded not just on assumptions of human superiority but on the impulses of war. The organophosphates that farmers widely adopted for use on crops were originated by Nazi scientists for use as chemical weapons. ‘After the war, US companies adopted the technology for agricultural use… the scene was set for weapons of destruction to become the means for mass production in farming’, writes Lymbery. Similarly, Rachel Carson pointed out in Silent Spring that the aerial spraying of pesticides all over America in the 50s and 60s was partly inspired by a surplus of bombers from WWII. So poisoning the environment with DDT, killing birds, dogs and cats, and giving everybody cancer, had a pragmatic side: retired pilots needed something to do.

There seems no end to the number of bad ideas people can come up with, or their willingness to despoil the earth. Not surprisingly, these farms, born out of war and defended on grounds of practicality and profit, are making us sick, causing a million mysterious and not so mysterious ailments. And after all the technological ‘advancement’ of farming from a modest activity to one that is monstrous, the nutritional value of factory-farmed meat is really low. According to Lymbery, you would need to eat four factory-farmed chickens to get the nutritional benefits of one 1970s organic chicken. Factory-farmed meat is much fattier than grass-fed free-range meat, because factory animals aren’t allowed to MOVE.

Lymbery describes a horrific pig farm he visited in China, that’s ‘so automated that a single stock man can “take care” of 3,000 pigs [making it] the ultimate factory farm, inhumane and utterly divorced from nature’. To enable these perverse farming practices to work, animals are not only punitively penned but regularly dosed with antibiotics, which are passed on down the food chain. The majority of the world’s antibiotics is now administered to livestock, a situation linked to the rise of MRSA, salmonella outbreaks, bird flu and swine flu (the latter farm-bred diseases are the direct consequences of mass production).

The new interest in cloning animals for meat is a similarly sorry tale and on this Farmageddon is truly frightening, describing the way chickens are bred with the intention that they will be unable to walk. As Lymbery puts it, ‘cloning threatens to multiply animals that are genetically programmed to suffer. It is a way of locking in misery’. They’re now breeding featherless chickens, to save us the bother of plucking. No thought is given to the bird’s quality of life. They are mere units of profit – as we all are, to our sinister betters. Cruelty is first practised on animals, then on humans: a system beloved of psychopaths.

The news on the farming of arable land isn’t good either. Because animals are now entombed in vast barns, their manure no longer fertilises the soil. All the useful dung beetles are gone, and the birds that ate them. The butterflies are gone, and bees have to be flown or trucked in to fields to do their duty. Even bees are now stressed out and overworked! Farms are increasingly devoted to single crops, without rotation, with the soil ‘enriched’ (or rather, killed and controlled) by pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers. Much of the soil in California is now like styrofoam, Lymbery reports. In Mexico, France, Holland and elsewhere, huge lagoons of pink slurry pollute the air and the water for miles around pig farms – and regularly overflow – making people ill and generating toxic algae. People and animals have died from inhaling these algae fumes along the coast of Brittany. Which used to be a beautiful place.

Fishing practices have been distorted by greed too. As a result, seabird populations are down by 95%. Off the Peruvian coast, which is now devoted to producing fishmeal (anchovy mush) for fish farms across the globe, they estimate there are only 1.8 million birds – a century ago there were 48 million. There’s nothing left for them to eat! Fish farms are also full of disease and parasites that threaten wild species and, in step with their mammalian counterparts in factory farms, farmed fish are kept in miserably overcrowded conditions. And Scottish farmers shoot the seals that the farms attract.

I would quibble with Lymbery’s phrase, ‘farming as nature intended’. Nature never intended farming, but there are certainly ways of working with nature, not against it. Agriculture, invented by women, was the basis for human civilisation, and it worked for thousands of years without hurting the environment. This symbiotic interaction has been completely abandoned in favor of intensive, destructive usurpation, whereby plants are cultivated in barren soil with the help of poisonous artificial substances, and animals are removed from the land, prematurely weaned, forced to grow at an unnatural rate, locked up, kicked around, and shunted across vast distances for slaughter. Just as in human slavery and sweat shops, a million reasons are offered for the need to abandon all compassion and restraint. Monsanto’s giving us all a good thrashing now.

Fox-hunting and vivisection labs begin to look fairly restrained, compared to the constant flagrant torture inflicted on the animals we eat. I know it’s awful even to mention this stuff, who wants to hear it? But it seems right to acknowledge the matter, because if people don’t realise what goes on, they’ll continue to support this endless cruelty by buying the products.

Farmageddon does a great job of delineating these issues, though it is admittedly long and somewhat prone to repetition, and contains one rather scary dangling participle: ‘Steamed, roasted, barbecued or minced in dim sum dishes, the Chinese are big on pork …’ It is not true, Lymber says, that free-range farming would take up too much space. He suggests that all of Britain’s chickens could enjoy a free-range life in a space a third the size of the Isle of Wight. This sounds like quite a good use for the Isle of Wight – but why not give chickens the whole place, so they can really gambol? They deserve it.