Rating 5 stars
Book 6 in my 10 Books of Summer reading challenge.
I’d read a lot of praise for Deb Olin Unferth’s novel Barn 8 on social media and in the press and I finally decided to take the plunge.
It is as good as people say it is. This is my first encounter with Unferth, although this isn’t her first book.
I read in one review that Unferth based the novel on an investigation she wrote for Harper’s magazine. I found the article in the magazine’s online archive. In it, Unferth describes her visit to a Michigan battery farm where new ‘enriched’ cages were being installed in barns. She also visited one of the traditional battery barns. She describes the animal rights investigators’ films of the horrific conditions on many battery farms. She describes the lives a small percentage of rescued hens get to have on sanctuaries. It’s sobering reading. Far more sobering than the novel, which is a joy.
I liked the way Unferth drew her characters. There’s an edge of exasperation to her writing them, as though she can’t quite believe how flawed and human they are. Each one is brilliantly imperfect, imperfections slightly amplified, but totally believable.
At the centre of the story is Janey Flores. Janey leaves home an angry teenager seeking out the dad she didn’t think existed, punishing the mum she feels has betrayed her trust. That decision changes everything.
Janey has grown up in Brooklyn. She ends up coming of age in Iowa. Unferth doesn’t spell out Janey’s childhood, but we can imagine it. It’s an unspoken contrast to her present in Iowa.
Janey ends up working for a battery farming conglomerate with a woman called Cleveland. As a child, Cleveland was looked after by Janey’s teenage mum, and Janey hears echoes of her mother in Cleveland’s quirks of communication. The pair don’t exactly bond. They’re both too awkward for that. Cutting through their awkwardness, though, is a thread of similarity.
Almost everyone in this book is awkward. Relationships are riddled with miscommunication and silent opprobrium. Everyone is, in some way or other, a let down to someone else. But it’s this that makes what happens next possible.
Cleveland has worked for the conglomerate for years. Her attempts to suggest improvements in the way the battery hen or laying farms are run are rejected out of hand by her regional manager. So Cleveland goes rogue, and Janey becomes her accomplice.
Over a period of time, Cleveland has been removing hens from the barns she audits. She started out taking one or two and leaving them outside the office of the local animal rights organisation. As the number of birds she removed increased, she switched to leaving them at a sanctuary. Except for in winter, when she left them at the animal rights office again. That is until the office closed down. By this point, Janey had joined her in her mission.
After the office closes, the pair track down Dill, the man who used to take care of the office, and start leaving the removed hens on his farm. Dill is a former activist, now shunned by his compadres, lost and in some need of direction.
For Janey, becoming involved in Cleveland’s secret is a moment of awakening. Since she left Brooklyn behind, she has hibernated herself, grieving for the things she lost as a consequence of her decision.
Unferth describes it nicely.
So say you have been trying to dim your own lights, take it down a notch. Lessen longing. Lessen rage. Lessen. Say that has been going on for years and then this happens – you find this and you ride along. You revive a bit, that’s all. You lessen the lessening.
I love this paragraph. It resonates with me. It’s about how people change themselves to survive the trauma of loss, particularly the loss of the things that anchor them. It’s also about whether a person can bring themselves back from that change. Life is constantly changing us. We can’t spend our time looking back at what was. We have to get on with living now.
For Janey, the now is spending time with Cleveland, removing battery hens from overcrowded barns. She is no longer the old Janey, and needs to find her new tribe.
What follows is a satirical caper involving former animal rights activists in various stages of unravelling. Unferth provides a primer in the US egg farming industry, where the egg has been identified as “the perfect unit of nutrition” and the industrialisation of egg farming enables the feeding of the nation at minimum cost and maximum profit. For the conglomerate, not the hens or even the farmers.
She builds a dystopian view of the inside of a barn, with cages rising far above the ground, occupying every possible millimetre of space, maximising production, minimising quality of existence.
Unferth takes us to a particular farm that stands for all the farms that have scaled up egg production to a monstrous level. It is a snapshot of all that is bad in the egg industry. Farmers struggling to make a living and forced by circumstance into the battery system of farming. Hens living unnatural lives in cages inside barns where artificial light tricks their brains into thinking it’s perpetually spring so their bodies will keep laying. The assumed next generation of egg farmers turning away from the life their parents have tried to secure for them.
Unferth asks questions that suggest an underlying theme to the novel.
Which of these chickens do humans most resemble: the ones roaming in ovals – a schoolyard, a campus, a neighborhood? Or the genetically modified monsters – wobbling inside our boxes, clutching our pieces of plastic and metal, mincing and crimping in our shoes, snapping at each other in tight spaces, poking our various machines that swivel or light up or open in simulation of activity, “amusement”, “exercise”, “work”, “love”?
Modern life, she seems to suggest, has turned us all into battery hens, unable to function outside the cages our work and our social networks keep us in.
The novel reads like a mix of the films Ocean’s Eleven and Three Lions. It’s a heist with a disgruntled and weary old hand, an eager but unschooled new convert, a specialist reluctantly persuaded back to the cause, and a pair of wildcards. From the off, we’re left in no doubt that the heist is going to end badly because of the undisciplined natures of those involved. There’s also an echo of The Stranger from The Big Lebowski to the all-seeing, unnamed narrator of Barn 8, the story telling is so wry and laconic.
That spareness in the telling was one of my favourite things about the book. Unferth takes the serious things in life, condenses them to their essence, allows us a beat to care about them, and then moves on. As an example, over a single page, Unferth captures all the pain involved in a failing marriage that has reached its end, and does it lightly, so that you are at once moved by the sadness of the moment and amused by the way she has turned it into an anecdote. She does it, too, with the horror of the battery farming industry.
The narrative jumps from perspective to perspective, and forwards and backwards in time. We observe Janey and Cleveland and hear their thoughts. We spend time with Dill in his bitterly fractured world of obsession. We see what the world might look like through the eyes of the hens. We learn about the evolution of gallus gallus domesticus and the breeding of the species into usefulness at the human end of the food chain. We meet Annabelle, the activist Dill used to work closely with who is now a recluse, hiding away on an island in a lake of toxic waste, through an interview in the future with the FBI. Annabelle’s ex-husband Jonathan is the fifth cog in the machine that will break the egg industry and a man who lost his anchor when he lost his wife.
That sense of loss, of something being missing from life, of being a let down to those who are supposed to matter permeates the book. It’s the subtle driver behind each character’s actions, as they try to do something that feels like it matters and marks them out as existing.
Unferth also captures the way life continues to change, can feel like it’s done, has spat you out, and then allows life to continue.
Life is so, so long … We always think it’s over for us – and it is over – then it starts again. Reincarnation in this lifetime.
A note of hope, then. And the book ends hopefully, too. Chickens will inherit the earth.