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Rarely does one encounter a first novel so unique that it is impossible to compare it with other works or voices. But this is exactly the case with Ruth Ozeki's assured debut, My Year of Meats. Like the author, a half-Japanese former filmmaker, the novel reflects a melange of contrasting influences and multiple points of view. The result is a book that is both cinematic and diaristic, a book whose compelling fiction rests upon unsavory, often horrifying facts. My Year of Meats may just represent a new hybrid in the literary landscape -- documentary fiction, or docufiction, if you will.
My Year of Meats chronicles a year in the life of Jane Takagi-Little, a struggling New York City-based documentary filmmaker who is hired to produce a Japanese television show, My American Wife!, sponsored by a lobby group of the U.S. meat industry. The show requires Jane to travel to the American Midwest to interview "representative American" women about their favorite beef recipes, interviews that are later broadcast to an audience of Japanese housewives. But it soon becomes apparent that Jane's ideas for the show differ wildly from those of the Japanese executives producing it. Unlike the list of "Desirable Things" that the executives tell Jane to look for in her subjects ("1. Attractiveness....2. Wholesomeness...3. Exciting hobbies....4. Obedient children.....5. Docile husband"), Jane prefers to focus on the individuals she finds most compelling: a pair of vegetarian lesbians, for example, and a family of impoverished gospel singers.
Jane's inadvertent subversiveness, while incurring the wrath of her bosses, also touches the hearts of the housewives back in Japan who watch her show religiously. One of My American Wife!'s most faithful viewers is Akiko Ueno, the long-suffering wife of John Ueno, the show's head advertising executive and Jane's boss. At first, John forces Akiko to watch the show and perform the functions of a mini-focus group, filling out a questionnaire after each episode that rates categories such as "Educational Value, Authenticity, Deliciousness of Meat and Wholesomeness." But Akiko, who is bulimic, begins to look forward to the program for the glimpse it gives her of lives so radically different from her own. Jane's feminist viewpoint gradually seeps in, and Akiko begins to dream of dismantling the power structures of her marriage.
But power structures, whether marriages or industries as powerful as the beef industry, are notoriously resistant to change. Jane's bosses threaten to fire her from the project for her attraction to "unwholesome subjects." John's abusiveness toward Akiko for what he feels is her willful infertility becomes increasingly violent. During filming, Jane, who had believed herself infertile due to her mother's use of DES (diethylstilbestrol -- man-made estrogen) during pregnancy, also discovers she is pregnant. DES, she soon learns, is the same growth hormone used to enhance the beef she is being paid to promote. While the plot thickens on several fronts, a desperate Akiko reaches out to Jane after a particularly severe beating by John. In her letter she pleads for what she believes is the key to a happy life.
Dear Miss Takagi-Little,
You do not know me because I am only the wife of Ueno of BEEF-EX so I regret to bothering you at all. But I feel compelled to writing for the reason of your program of the Lesbian's couple with two childrens was very emotional for me. So thank you firstly for change my life. Because of this program, I feel I can trust to you so that I can be so bold.
You see, Ueno and I wanted to have the child at first but because of my bad habits of eating and throw up my food I could not have monthly bleeding for many years. But now I can have it again thanks to eating delicious Hallelujah Lamb's recipe from your program of My American Wife! so secondly thank you for that also.
But I am most wanting to say that I listen to the black lady say she never want man in her life, and all of a sudden I agree! I am so surprising that I cry! (I do not know if I am Lesbian since I cannot imagine this condition, but I know I never want marriage and with my deep heart I am not "John's" wife.)
I feel such a sadness for my lying life. So I now wish to ask you where can I go to live my happy life like her? Please tell me this.
As it turns out, Akiko is soon well on her way to defining her own happiness. In the hospital after the beating, she befriends one of the nurses, Tomoko, who offers her a place to stay. While at Tomoko's, Akiko begins to plan her escape to America. Jane, meanwhile, has miscarried due to an accident at a slaughterhouse, but has shot damning footage of the meat industry's corrupt practices, a videotape that will secure her future for a long while to come. Thankfully, Ozeki doesn't opt for the entirely happy ending. Although the meat industry ultimately gets its comeuppance (in the book's final chapters, Jane exposes the literal -- and emotional -- toxicity in one cattle ranchers' home), Ozeki never lets us forget how the beef industry's greed has scarred Jane and Akiko -- and countless others -- forever.
Throughout the novel, hard-nosed documentarian research provides the underpinnings for a compelling, inevitable story. Combining the personal, the fictional, and the political, My Year of Meats is an intoxicating hybrid and an explosive and courageous debut.