Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: Cows

        I had assumed the reviews I had read of Matthew Stokoe's Cows had to be hyperbolic in their description of the extreme violence and Sade-esque sexuality. In hindsight they were all more or less spot on. This novel is almost unique in the depths of its depravity and the detailed description of the acts that occur. It is very hard to describe these parts of the book without quoting them verbatim so I am going to avoid them for the most part. Do be aware that they fill every unoccupied space in the book.  Fortunately Stokoe for the most part stays away from shock simply for shocks sake. In reviewing this work I think it is easy to get too caught up in the graphic scenes of Cows at the expense of glossing over the deeper parts of the novel. Cows explores depravity almost out of necessity as it describes evil acts while on the greater mission of understanding the animalistic side of man in the form of the drive to power and predator prey relationships. The transgressive violence in Stokoe's debut novel is only central for about the first two thirds of the book and seem to act as a weeding out process before the important and thoughtful parts of the book kick into gear. It's as if Stokoe is saying "If you can't get past the rough parts you won't be able to understand the message I have to give".
         The plot is, at least relative to the imagery, the sentiment, and the dialogue of the novel, unimportant.  The main character Steven (anti-Hero...) is a young man in an unbearable living situation and we find him at the beginning of the book beginning a new job at a slaughterhouse. Like any young man in his position he has a love interest, wants a family and is conflicted about working in a place where killing is central. Cows acts as an amplifier taking all the difficult and awkward parts of a young man's life: the search for love, the desire for independence, the drive to rise up the rungs of society and amplifies them to the extreme. Where many may be familiar of the common experience of an overbearing mother who serves sub-par food Cows depicts Steven's mother (lovingly known only as "The Hagbeat") as a genuinely evil emotionally abusive semihuman who serves him food that is literally killing him. By amplifying Steven's situation Stokoe is able to demonstrate in great detail to an outsider the difficulties that a real person in Steven's situation faces. Similarly where some may feel that life is a series of small positive events in a sea of failures and mistakes Steven's life is often punctuated by brief moments of light that inevitably turn around and introduce more tragedy into his life than had been there previously.
         Initially the dialogue in Cows seems forced, almost laughable. Many conversations come off as clunky, affected, and most of the characters appear pretentious or insane. Upon returning from his first day of work, stinking and covered in slaughter byproducts Steven Runs into his disturbed love interest in the hall of their council house. A piece of meat falls from his hair and she asks:
                     "They live don't they? They suffer. Like us. Haven't you seen the poison inside them? Hard and black and stuck in the intestines? Or under the liver or somewhere else?" 
             Her comment is practically unprovoked and one could imagine this scene playing out awkwardly in an uncomfortable amateur art film or an endless Godard monologue. It wasn't until well into the novel that I decided that Stokoe meant for much of the dialogue to be read more as a philosophical lesson than as actual conversation between two people. He places his characters in such unbearable situations that the only way to cope, the only way to process what they are going through is to do it out loud and in the most complex was possible. Viewed in this context the dialogue begins to work and adds a lot to the general feeling of the novel even if it is jarring to go from an extremely violent scene to a staid discussion of the transformative powers of violence.
            The cows in Cows serve to provide a number of different roles and as I'm sure you have gathered from the title are central to the book. To a certain extent the slaughterhouse workers and the herd switch roles as the humans go about their daily routines with a sort of mindless bovine servility and the cows search for existential fulfillment. The cows begin to speak to Steven and this lends an air of magical realism to the novel but their dialogue is so mundane that any whimsy fades into the background immediately. The herd mentality is played out perfectly in the manner and content of the cows speech and the discussions among the herd is unsettling similar to many current human political discussions. Ultimately the Cows are us: forever afraid, hopelessly searching, and composed primarily of various insatiable appetites. They bicker and fight while maintaining ignorance of the world around them and blindly follow the entity that gets them the most riled up.
            One cow, unnamed, stands above the rest in intelligence and leadership and a struggle between it and Steven form one of the most intricate and thought provoking relationships of the book. The nature of power is central to this relationship and the novel as a whole: power over another species, the interaction between power and sex, and power over members of our own species. Stokoe argues through the actions of the characters that we forever rationalize the power we exert over others but in reality the drive for power  comes from a wholly animalistic and ultimately destructive place. His argument is convincing and it would be difficult to explore this argument without the level of violence in the book.
          Steven's only emotional outlet and sole hope for the future is found in the vast quantities of television he watches. He imagines his life in the future as like those he sees on t.v and later in the novel strives to recreate what he watches. To a greater or lesser extent anyone who has interfaced with media has attemped this and realized the paradox of the illusion. Stokoe addresses the impossibility of attaining the televised lie straight on. In fact much of the tragedy that fills Steven's life comes from this search and in a sense Cows is  a cautionary tale of the lures of media. The novel was written just before the internet attained its current cultural status and it would be interesting to see how Stokoe would integrate the illusions of social networking and customizable media into Steven's life.
          Cows is Stokoe's first novel and his other books High Life and Empty Mile have received great reviews. I plan to pick them up in the future. Cows is a rare book, quick too and it certainly packs a punch along with thought provoking moments if you can handle the other bits. Stokoe's profile is fairly low key now but here's hoping that in the future he attains the attention he deserves .

Matthew Stokoe
October 1999
Akashic Books "Little House on the Bowery" series          

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