(Graywolf Press, 2020)
There is a certain level of joy and anticipation I feel when opening a new book by Deb Olin Unferth. She’s a wildly creative, sharply insightful, and deeply compassionate writer (not to mention funny!). Unferth has a way of looking at the world and showing it through her characters that can shift one’s point of view, sometimes in drastic ways. Barn 8, Unferth’s sixth book, has been described as “an urgent moral fantasia” and “a post-human parable” and the work it does may well lead to vitally important new insights for many.
In Unferth’s last book, the short story collection Wait Till You See Me Dance (2017), the focus was on marginalized people, often unlikeable and often failing under the weight of their own circumstances or shortcomings. “Barn 8” starts out seemingly as the narrative of two women—Janey and Cleveland—and while both women’s stories feature in the novel, eventually it becomes clear that this book isn’t so much about the human characters but instead about the animals, specifically the hens: long-suffering, much smarter than we give them credit for, abused beyond comprehension, and ultimately transcendent.
Janey (who likely non-coincidently shares a name with the famed protagonist in Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School) is a girl with a good life: a mother who loves her, a place on the school debate team, a promise of a good college and an even brighter future ahead of her. But Janey is also a young woman in search of her father. One day she runs away from Brooklyn to find him: boarding a bus to the heartland without telling her mother, she shows up at his door—completely uninvited. Her father, Janey soon discovers, is a slug, a couch potato who never wanted a daughter, and it’s only her stubbornness that keeps her from going back to her mother until it’s shockingly too late.
Finding herself stuck in a life formed by the terribly mistaken choice she’s made, Janey creates fictional separate timelines for herself. One features the Janey who stayed in Brooklyn with her mother, one the Janey who remains stuck in Iowa with no prospects, and other Janeys her mind variously creates (again reminiscent of Acker’s Janey). Janey has nearly given up on life altogether when her father lands her a job as an “auditor” at the factory farm where he works. At first she’s horrified but then decides to take the job when she learns that Cleveland, a woman who once knew her mother Olivia, will be her supervisor. Cleveland is equally eager to meet Olivia’s daughter and it’s here we learn how influential Janey’s mother remains to both women existing as a positive force in their lives long after she’s dead. Once Cleveland and Janey meet, something of Olivia’s rebellious spirit arises between them and they hatch a plan—a plan that’s been a long time coming for Cleveland.
As the narrative moves forward through Janey and Cleveland’s story, we also meet Annabelle, Animal Rights activist daughter of the owner of the state’s largest egg processing farm, and her one time compatriot Dill. A charismatic leader, Annabelle is semi-retired from the Animal Rights movement (or “AR” as its often called in the novel) as is Dill but when Janey and Cleveland approach them with a radical plan to rescue not one, not ten, but all of the farm’s one million “layer” hens, how can they resist? The plan itself is presented in plausible detail and it’s hard not to start to believe in Janey’s transcendent vision and in Cleveland, Annabelle, and Dill’s conviction that the hens deserve better. Cleveland’s initial act of rebellion—taking a hen escaped from one of the factory barns and putting in the back of her car rather than dropping it off for destruction, is a small act but one that starts the forward motion of the larger rebellion in the novel. Where Janey’s decision to board a bus to Iowa is a misguided and selfish action that leads to devastating personal consequences, Cleveland’s quick decision to rescue one hen is both selfless and her start onto a road of activism that leads to the central action in the novel. In other words, while it’s essential that Janey run away to Iowa in order for her to become an activist, she’s not starting from the same place. Although it’s Janey’s transcendent vision of chickens literally flying into an impossible escape that becomes central to the plan, it’s Cleveland’s initial act of animal rights activism that signals what is to come. Eventually, Cleveland’s need to act combines with Janey’s transcendent vision, leading them to enlist two AR leaders who can realize the plan: the organizational capabilities of Dill combines with the charismatic siren call of Annabelle until all meld into a plan to rescue one million chickens.
Separated into four sections and a brief epilogue, Unferth shifts adroitly between narrators giving the novel a rich variety of points of view, including a foray into the philosophy of chickens themselves and the despair of undercover AR agents (“investigators”) who suffer their own quiet lives of law breaking and hopeless testimony against the juggernaut of Big Ag. Though the action is relatively fast-paced, there is significant depth here as well: from Unferth’s exposure of the brutality of the US egg industry and the cruelty enacted on millions of hens to the toll this cruelty takes on the people involved—inspectors, auditors, and activists. Throughout, Unferth’s characterizations of humans and chickens alike are warm, funny, and provide deep insight into questions around what it means to be a compassionate human in a world terribly out of ethical and environmental balance. Gracefully woven into the forward movement of the novel is a sweeping history of our relationship with chickens across civilizations, the US shift into factory farming and the gruesome details of the enormous cruelties involved in mass egg production, whether the hens are caged or “cage free.”
Although the novel is written in Unferth’s signature concise and elegant prose with a clear forward moving plot, there’s enough here to warrant slow and careful reading. Unferth writes time shifts from the earliest origins of the modern “layer” hen to present day and forward again into a post-human future where animals may survive (and perhaps thrive), all done in a graceful layering of the narrative that never lets us forget the seemingly inevitable outcome of Janey’s vision and Annabelle’s action when she calls her network of AR activists, “We’re planning an action. We need your help. The world is failing but we can fight back.”
The novel ends with a vision of a post-human future helped on its way through the actions of a park ranger whose own rebellion echoes the thousands of individual ethical activist choices made by others in the novel; all leading to an epilogue that is both rewarding and deeply moving, echoing Annabelle’s statement above, “The world is failing but we can fight back.”