A Perfectly Calibrated Instrument

J.S. DeYoung reviews Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8

Deb Olin Unferth, Barn 8.
And Other Stories, £9.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

1.

Once, a more successful writer friend explained her job to me this way: “Simply put, I try to make what I’m interested in interesting to you — or a reader.” I’ve always like that job description because its simplicity frees the writer from the coop of egotistical questions she often finds herself within, questions such as: What is the purpose of my writing? What does it do other than lie on the page? How can my writing help? Should it help? If my friend is correct, writing (and reading) is first enrichment, if only incremental, but then it can become a prompt to action, a change of… something. A change for the better, perhaps.

Change for the better is something I sense at the core of Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8. To understand what I mean, step back to 2014, when Unferth published an essay in Harpers called ‘Cage Wars’. In her report, she asks these questions: What is it like for a chicken to live in a cage? And does it matter? She writes stirringly about Big Agriculture, the layer hen industry, and the grotesque lives the chickens endure. To be sure, ‘Cage Wars’ is formidable reading, a blend of stories centred on the hens’ appalling living conditions and the scandalous technical studies that reveal the fallout of Big Ag’s activities. One of these studies is exceptionally gross and provocative as it notes that “the ventilation fans of a 3 million-hen farm sent nearly 5 million pounds of pollutants” into nearby waterways. If the health of hens doesn’t matter to you, your own health likely does; and knowing that an unconscionable amount of shit is being dropped into our collective backyard might have you reconsidering the lives of the aforementioned hens.

But it doesn’t stop there. ‘Cage Wars’ is loaded with other facts about layer hens, the lawlessness that governs their lives, and the sometimes insouciant farmers’ efforts to thread the impossible needle of satisfying the changing values of customers, who signal a desire for more humane treatment for hens, while still turning a profit. Some of the more noteworthy points include:

  • There are no U.S. federal regulations regarding the treatment of animals on farms.
  • In fact, there are only two federal protections that do apply to farm animals — one for slaughter and one for transportation — and both of them exempt chickens.
  • Additionally, what anti-cruelty statues there are in most American states exempt “customary farm practices” and leave it up to the individual farmers to deem what is cruel. Beatings? Hanging? Starving? According to Unferth, all have been “dismissed as normal farm practice”.
  • And then there’s this heartbreaking detail: “Layer hens have a natural life span of up to ten years, but they are spent [meaning they’re no longer proficient egg producers] by two”, at which time “most of them are gassed and ground up for pet or farm-animal food.”

Let’s pause here, because this is worth pausing for. A ten-year life span shortened to two, and then ground into kibble. This for a creature which, we learn,

can recognize more than a hundred other chicken faces, even after months of separation. They recognize human faces too. They have distant voices and talk among themselves, even before they hatch. A hen talks to her eggs and the embryos answer, peeping and twittering through the shells. Adult chickens have at least thirty different categories of conversation, centered around, to name a few, mating, eating, nesting, rearing, and warning, each with its own web of coos and calls and clucks.

So, perhaps the plight of the hen is novel-worthy? To be honest, when I first approached Unferth’s novel, Barn 8, I was preparing to write a more facetious (yet serious) review — because it’s about chickens, y’all! But now — in light of reading ‘Cage Wars’ — I’m flustered and awestruck by Unferth’s talent to write a novel like this with such humour and grace; by how she gives each character dignity and humanity, and how her narrative carries on sans dogma.

2.

It might as well be said that Deb Olin Unferth is a vegan, but she is also much more. She is the author of one previous novel (Vacation, 2008), a memoir (Revolution, 2011), a graphic novel (I, Parrot, 2017), and three short story collections, most recently Wait Till You See Me Dance (2017). She is also the founder of Pen-City Writers, a two-year creative-writing certificate program at a maximum-security prison in south Texas, and she teaches at The University of Texas at Austin. Compared to her previous work, which she has described as “micro in scope”, Barn 8 is more expansive, given its multiple points of view. It is clearly a step beyond what she has done in the past, yet it retains Unferth’s signature, springy prose that smartly carries the reader along and makes for affable, propulsive reading.

Barn 8 opens with Janey, who at fifteen years old runs away from her New York City life with her mother to meet the Midwestern father she has never known. It’s a less-than-successful introduction. Her father is emotionally cold and uncertain; Janey is still reeling from her mother’s betrayal, the one that triggered the impulse to runaway. An abiding disdain for one another immediately settles between father and daughter. Yet in a fit of teenage pique, Janey declares that she’ll live “forever” with her father, and this becomes the critical error that determines the remainder of her life.

Janey’s father is a “something something for the USDA at a poultry processing plant”, which to Janey means he spends his days “inspecting dead bodies”. She oscillates between being indifferent and angry towards this man, who reciprocates in kind. Never having really been a father, Janey’s dad struggles to shelter and guide his teenage daughter, who in his town in the heartland is marked out for being “city-stamped, only a quarter Latina, but not middle-American white either”. Janey eventually finishes high school, and then takes her place among the town’s disaffected — highly intelligent, underemployed, and stir crazy. At her father’s unwelcome suggestion, Janey trains to become a layer hen consumer auditor, where she meets the aptly named Cleveland.

Cleveland is by all accounts as straight-laced a barn worker as one could find. A stickler for rules and protocols, she finds herself in a perplexing position one day as she watches a lone hen wandering outside the barn she has just finished auditing. Having a loose hen is not good; returning a loose hen is perhaps catastrophic: “In the barn, error meant collapse. If hens could get out, other animals could get in, spread disease, kill off half the North American egg eaters, and so on.” Instead of returning the hen, Cleveland secretly shuttles it off to the home of an animal rights activist, where she places it on the doorstep like a foundling and then sneaks away. She feels rather mixed about this action, but then she becomes captivated with saving hens. Her path to commitment begins with saving one more, then that one becomes many, and eventually she partners with Janey to rescue carloads of hens, dumping them off (again like foundlings) at the activist’s home. Not dissimilar to the adrenaline high of the novice shoplifter, these catch-and-release nights become fun, thrilling, and a bonding experience for Cleveland and Janey — until they are caught. But it isn’t a farmer who catches them. It’s Dill, the activist, and with him they form a new, semi-adversarial alliance.

Dill convinces the two women that what they’re doing — playing Robin Hood, “smuggling a few citizen hens to safety” — isn’t accomplishing much. In fact, it’s a burden on Dill’s meagre resources, and besides, the farmers aren’t noticing. This is the point at which Janey comes up with the idea to rescue an entire farm’s worth of hens — tens of thousands of birds. And with this fateful decision, the rest of the novel is set in motion.

To go much further would start to spoil Barn 8, but it’s a helluva romp, as it becomes a Burt Reynolds-like heist for the vegan and animal rights set. Tragic in some ways, hopeful in others, it’s remarkable to watch Unferth’s characters design and enact something so outrageous, so morally earnest and yet in part such folly. But, for Unferth, the foibles are baked into the premise, as she told J.A. Tyler in Ploughshares: “The human race is a little funny. Our predicament, our plans, our endless horrible solutions. … It’s all a little funny, even while being devastating and disappointing.”

3.

Unferth is unequivocal about the intent of Barn 8. It is not trying to be a distant cousin to The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair’s fictionalised exposé on the unsanitary practices of American meatpacking. Instead, as she told Eco Lit Books, “I wanted to write a fun, cool novel… from my point of view, which includes the understanding that we can’t ever own another living being.” And, in an essay for Granta, she broadened this by stating that she “wanted to write about late-stage capitalism, the human obsession with putting things into rows, lining them up, making them all look the same, caging them so they can’t go anywhere — humans, animals, even plants — and how this is our error and downfall.” It might seem indulgent to quote both of these statements, but I think it captures something about Unferth’s writing in general and Barn 8 in particular. While the novel is “fun” and “cool”, it also expects serious consideration.

I think that’s why Unferth chooses a bold, youthful central character like Janey, who makes it easy for the novel to straddle these two states. Janey has an edge to her nature — you’ll easily root for her — but she is also naïve. Because she is the only character in the book who lacks expertise in hens and eggs, her education becomes our education; like most readers, I assume, she learns about the egg business as she goes along, becoming incrementally exposed to its hideousness as well as its technical aspects. And interspersing Janey’s story with more factual material, Unferth apprises us of some of the harsher truths regarding factory farming, many of which have clearly come from her research for ‘Cage Wars’. While Barn 8 never overwhelms its reader with as many technical details about laying hens as ‘Cage Wars’ does, the dry, industrial facts it does include are compelling and unexpectedly poignant. Here, for example, is how Unferth describes the enormous fans that move the air in the barns: “For the hens the fans are the sound of the earth — as sea turtles think of the ocean, as humans think of the sound of the air. It’s the last sound the hens hear, other than their own voices, as farmhands stuff them at the end of their lay into the carbon dioxide cart.”

This transformation of sound, as the sound of the fans becomes the sound of the earth, encapsulates a key structural element in Barn 8: the divulging and withholding of knowledge itself, in a quasi re-dramatisation of Plato’s allegory of the cave. We see Unferth’s device at work in scenes where characters make their most significant decisions, as those decisions are inevitably identified by the omniscient narrator as events that would “change the course of [the character’s] life forever”.  Again, the character who is most often subjected to this omniscient aggregation of knowledge is Janey, to the point where she eventually surveys her own behaviour from outside of her body. After leaving New York behind, she often feels as if she has split into two people — one the unhappy Janey who lives in the Midwest with her father, the other the happier Janey who lives with her mother in New York — and, when she is far from the coast, she frequently imagines what the other, “city-stamped” Janey is doing. It’s not until she decides to free the chickens that she accepts her Midwestern self, and comes to prefer her: through this commitment to a meaningful course of action, she realises that her Midwestern self has more agency than her metropolitan other, because the grittier Midwestern version has more freedom to choose her own path — and more guts.

But it’s not only Janey who benefits from Unferth’s toying with knowledge that her characters don’t possess. Her self-consciously omniscient device also offers a chance for the stories of other characters to be told, not just the vegans working for animal liberation. The farmers are given their own stories, and their motives are shown just as much compassion as those of the animal rights activists and the truck drivers who help to rescue the hens. Certainly, deep characterisation is one of the most impressive qualities of Barn 8: Unferth displays an unstoppable impulse to humanise all of her characters so that there’s not a villain, per se, because every character is doing their best by their values, beliefs, and, in many instances, their family bonds. The personal and the political are one.

So, then, what about change for the better? Will Barn 8 change you? That is, of course, for you to decide. ‘Cage Wars’ will certainly rattle you, and Barn 8 will undoubtedly entertain, and when read together they are a persuasive combo. Yet it’s finally not the persuasiveness of Unferth’s work that I find myself affected by, so much as its personal intensity. Given the depth of Unferth’s research and her dogged moral questioning, Barn 8 especially comes across as a highly personal work of literature — despite its sprawling narrative, and the politicisation of its subject matter — and for this reason it seems only right to admit that its lingering effects have been, for me, just as personal. It revealed to me my unintentional thoughtlessness towards the freckled, brown eggs I crack open each morning to feed to my family, and made me newly aware of what is perhaps my ingratitude towards the creatures from which they come. It taught me to imagine, without flinching, the little ladies who laid those eggs, birds who have been bred through a sped-up evolution, so much so that they have become genetically strange and powerful creatures, designed to survive bizarre trials, yet living cooped in cages too small for their bodies. Why not pay them attention? Gratitude would be better; pity, better still. As Mahmoud Darwish advises, in one of my favourite poems, “As you prepare your breakfast, think of others…” Those “others” might belong to a category broad enough to encompass more than just human life. Now, when I think of others, I include the hens.

About J.S. DeYoung

J.S. DeYoung is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction has appeared The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, and Best American Mystery Stories, and he is the author of Waiting for the Miracle, forthcoming from The Cupboard Pamphlet in 2020. His reviews have appeared in a range of venues including Music and Literature, 3:AM Magazine, and Numéro Cinq. Other work can be found at jasondeyoung.com and he also tweets @J_DeYoung.