:: Article

Til the Pigs Come Round

By Koushik Banerjea.

John King, Slaughterhouse Prayer (London Books, 2018)

How do you like your foundational myths? Slow burners simmered with half-truths, or full shock and awe straight out of the deep fat fryer? We’re a nation of animal lovers, right? According to urban myth, even the local gangsters used to pat the heads of dogs before expressing other forms of periodized etiquette. Listen hard enough ‘for the roar of the beast’, and more often than not it’s answered by ‘the call of a man’. At least that’s what Mickey Moo thinks. Mickey Moo, aka Michael Tanner, a human punk and hunt saboteur in his Subhumans T-shirt, recently battered to within an inch of his life by opportunistic terrier men, the shock troops of the modern hunt. The countryside mulch where Mickey lies prone literally adjacent to the warped syntax of slaughter driving the hunt. This is the country, the culture, John King-style, its primal tints coated red, like the Strange Fruit, ‘blood on the leaves, and blood at the root.’ There’s no looking away here, though, the muck and bullets of a tribalism first encountered two decades ago in the hooligan demimonde of The Football Factory morphing into an all-encompassing horror in Slaughterhouse Prayer, his ninth and arguably most ambitious novel yet. 

Whether it’s social pariahs, class antagonisms or the predations of late capital, King’s work has consistently cast its forensic eye across a period of rapid change in this country. It dares us to look precisely where we’ve trained ourselves not to: at the sublimated violence of a supposedly peaceful society and its faultlines of race, class and obsolescence; at the vilified underground cultures of that crumbling sociality. Perhaps above all at the ethics of self-conjured by an atrophying social mainstream. Slaughterhouse Prayer goes further still, riffing on the observation by the doomed Jewish intellectual, Walter Benjamin, that modernity ‘has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training.’ Specifically, in how we train ourselves in the act of looking at non-human animals and at the violence humans daily inflict upon them. If Mickey Moo is incensed by this, then it’s hard to argue with his conviction, contiguous with Benjamin, that language, in its snidest form, is at the root of this dissonance. ‘Straight lines were bent…the broadsheets wrapping killing up in ethical and green rhetoric’. ‘Humane slaughter’ anyone? Mickey reflects on how chicken, for most people, is simply ‘eight legs under sellophane, four frozen breasts’. The facts more raw than the meat, a billion chickens a year killed in the UK alone, male baby chicks ground up alive and the genocidal stats piling up across the entire spectrum of farmyard abjection. Yet ‘where was the mass reaction to the mass slaughter of animals? The last thing they would do would be to connect the beef on their plates to the mechanics of the meat industry. They needed to see what he saw – suffocating fish, shackled steers bleeding out, decapitated roosters, screaming lambs.’ And Mickey’s anger, particularly following his own near-death experience at the hands of the terrier men, rises further when he considers the everyday language of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, primarily used to distance ‘us’ from the crimes committed daily against ‘them’. Rape, castration, torture, murder played for laughs in the tabloid sophistry of ‘headless chicken, dirty cow, smelly pig.’ A compliant judiciary rubbing salt in the wounds: ‘Five years in prison for saving nine dogs from a torture-chamber. Rapists got less than that. Beasts and nonces.’

There’s a great chain of being here as well, social Darwinism turned on its head as Mickey, seeing past his anger, recognizes that the ‘slaughtermen are at the bottom of this particular food chain’. Their actions, like those of the chicken killers, Bob Cummings and Ricky Spears, belong to ‘tinpot dictators’, the sort of ‘people who bought small animals so they could practise their sadism at home’. Two bob bullies, but really bottom-feeders in the wider scheme. But Mickey’s not alone in his outrage. An avenging animal rights’angel, dubbed ‘Bob the Butcher’ by hostile tabloids and ‘Bobby Four legs’ by his admirers, is systematically working his way through the command structure of the meat/dairy industries, dispatching first the chicken killers, then selected slaughtermen, before stepping things up by decapitating senior executives in the industry, culminating in the gruesome killing of sadistic, depraved Funhouse Foods’ boss, Harry Spalding.

The point driven home that while the metaphorical and material violence introduced by late capitalism into human/non-human animal relationships may well have marginalized humans, the ultimate tragedy here isn’t the alienation, sometimes even from their own labour, of the slaughtermen. It is the massification of lethal boundaries marking animal death and human life; the dressage of disassembly – hide removal, debeaking, dismemberment, cleanup – reconfiguring our relationship to the death casting a shadow on our plates. The killing floors of the slaughterhouses still largely ‘out of sight, out of mind’, yet the linguistic structure of species-ism taking shape in a whole network of material practices which reproduce this logic as a materialized institution. The sophistry required to think of meat as anything other than murder, or dairy as somehow not rape. The ‘ism’ that daren’t speak its name, yet whose presence can be felt in the failure to extend to animals the most basic principles of non-violence as they apply, in theory at least, to humans. This is the blind spot in others that so infuriates Mickey once he realizes, as a young boy, that the meat In his food comes from slaughtered animals. Why can’t his peers also see this? Why are they so blind to the truth? As he grows older, the puzzlement and anger remain. ‘For his part, he wanted to know how anyone could claim to be a socialist and eat meat. What sort of liberal let piglets die because they enjoyed the taste of their bodies? Why would a conservative condone the cutting of a child’s throat? Where was the outrage of the religious leaders? All of these people peddled morality but refused to challenge the meat and dairy industries. He hated their dishonesty.

There is a dream-like quality to the narrative, Mickey’s story and that of the avenging angel melding with nightmarish sequences set in the slaughterhouses, where ‘the killing was relentless’. These are the charnel houses of our consumptive present. ‘He was a lamb in a lorry. A drowning rabbit. A pig bleeding to death. A tethered girl raped. A boy castrated…locked away with the lost souls of the world.’ Shades of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle here, and indeed that seminal work is evoked in a powerful passage absorbing several iterations of mass transit horror, the nodal points of an ongoing genocide. ‘He pictured Upton Sinclair’s boxcars in the great stockyards of his steak-eating democracy, the death-camp trains of the fascists and communists, the slave ships of the sugar kings. The horror continued in the right here and right now, but the masses didn’t want to know. People needed to confront the reality.’ Later, during a quiet moment away from the barroom philosophers he has been drinking with, Mickey considers how ‘civilization meant nothing if the foundations were rotten. The slaughter of innocents was denied. Culture had been celebrated as slaves were transported from Africa and Jews were sent to the gas chambers.’ And that’s the point, really, that across the ages there have always been ‘bodies to be plucked, skinned, gutted, butchered’, the extraction of ‘value’ taking place on an industrial scale, right down to the filching of fillings and hair, and the repurposing of abjection as profit. Mickey wonders, ‘how could people change unless they saw the murder of animals in a human context?’ And in one of his own shape-shifting dreams he assumes the form of a hare to finally escape his frenzied pursuers. Meanwhile, in the depraved imagination of Harry Spalding, meat mogul, sex tourist, the morphology is stretched even further, to cover both his abuse and his profession. To his predatory eye, Asian whores ‘looked more like monkeys, while their high pitched voices reminded him of squealing piglets, brittle-boned hens scratching at his wallet with their red-painted nails…The people craving tender flesh the same as those men they branded paedophiles…only lying to themselves if they denied the sexual nature of the meat industry.’

The story gives short shrift too for the pieties of monotheism, ‘where nature existed to serve the master species, an arrogance that bled into their attitude towards non-believers.’ It is one of the great strengths of this narrative, the ability to cast an unflinching eye and a wholly unsentimental logic, across a whole range of manufactured social delusions. The ancient shibboleths of religion, greed and the terrible price paid by defenceless creatures for this exclusive tribal piety are writ large in Mickey’s numbing sojourn into the sentient heartlands. ‘The faithful were preparing for their animal sacrifices…the seasonal massacre was well under way, the murder rate rising as he looked back towards a plastic Jesus.’ And whilst he finds temporary respite in the more animist, pantheistic environment of the Ganesh Bhelpuri restaurant, Mickey is still left with the feeling that too many people, of all political stripes, ‘didn’t give a fuck about the suffering on their plates.’

While Mickey’s righteous fury gathers pace, on the other side of that ethical divide a pig farmer and strikingly venal cheerleader for ‘the industry’ admits that Nazis were ‘visionaries when it came to the mechanics of transportation and slaughter.’ Perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked. The Nazis and their Final Solution had, after all, themselves been inspired by the mass movement and industrialized killing of animals in the slaughterhouses of Chicago. The genocidal convulsions of modernity refitted as the blood-soaked sophistry of now. ‘The pig and goat were delicious. Sustainable. Organic.’ Yet this story makes us look at the buckets brimming with blood, the knives, the cleavers, the kicking legs. Process as well as product. And in that single act of not looking away, it recognises the brutal logic linking abattoir and kitchen, the industrial and the domestic. In that sense perhaps its greatest achievement is conceptual. Through the eyes of Mickey and the avenging angel, though most poignantly through the final moments of the condemned beasts themselves, Slaughterhouse Prayer insists that we do nothing less than reboot our sensorium. Its boldness of vision places it alongside such cinematic classics as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) or the earlier surrealist documentary Blood of the Beasts (1949), directed by Georges Franju, interweaving scenes of World War Two-era Paris and its slaughter complex ‘La Villette’. But it also updates a philosophical/literary continuum inaugurated in those Chicago stockyards, fed through the humane ethics of a Peter Singer or an Ishmael Reed before a spectral return to those killing fields in the Chicago academic, Cary Wolfe’s treatise on species-ism and what he’s termed ‘Animal Rites’ (2003).

Of course, by themselves, good intentions and a rock solid ethics are never enough to also guarantee a compelling tale. Yes, it’s an important novel and a crucial intervention in one of the key questions of this or any other age. But it’s also a story beautifully told, a prayer for the dying which might just signal something hopeful too. The potential for our rebirth, in language and deed, as a better kind of being: a human animal, just one species of many, shorn of the guilt of the stun gun, the cruelties of exceptionalism. Back to the form though, which is stunning, in the only way that term should ever be celebrated. Consider this early meditation on space (skyline) and style (the surface lie). ‘He loved the way the buildings were being chopped up by the twilight, redesigned in cubist patterns…No loose threads. No fading dye, torn fabric, flapping skin. No smashed ribs, hacked limbs, broken hearts.’ So once again, how do you like your foundational myths? It turns out, with a side order of philosophy and its heartbroken, but for all that, still true. Slaughterhouse Prayer, a captive literary bolt through our collective consciousness. If Upton Sinclair had read the Upanishads…

Koushik Banerjea is a writer based in South London. His debut novel is scheduled for publication in 2019.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 30th, 2018.