In 2015, Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize-listed novel A Tale for the Time Being was one of Teresa’s books of the year. Since I trust Teresa’s taste absolutely, and since I’d heard lots of other good things about Ozeki as well, when I caught sight of My Year of Meats on the library shelf, I seized the day. (Carpe librum?)
In this novel, Jane Takagi-Little has nabbed a job as director of a Japanese reality show, My American Wife! This show, sponsored by BEEF-EX, is meant to introduce American beef to Japanese housewives by showing them attractive, normal (read: white, upper-class) American families eating delicious beef recipes each week. But Jane, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, has other ideas: she wants to show the full variety of American families — poor, multiracial, even vegetarian — and the tension between her shows and the executives at BEEF-EX grows as My American Wife! becomes ever more popular in Japan.
The point of view shifts between Jane and Akiko Ueno, the wife of one of these Japanese executives. Akiko’s husband, Joichi (“call me John”) is constantly angry with Akiko because she hasn’t gotten pregnant yet. She’s too thin — her menstruation has stopped — and he encourages her to make each of the My American Wife! recipes and eat them, to put some meat on her bones. (See what I did there?) Over time, however, as Jane’s subversion grows, so does John’s anger, and he takes it out on Akiko both emotionally and physically. Her slow revelation — that she wants a child, but not a husband; that she wants a happy life — is transformational.
As Jane films the various episodes of the show — the one where the husband turns out to be cheating on his American Wife, the one where the family has six adopted children, the one where they serve Australian lamb chops instead of beef, the one with the vegetarian lesbians — she learns more and more about the state of meat, especially beef, in the United States. Jane finds out about the hormones, steroids, preservatives, and other chemicals that routinely find their way into American beef; she visits a slaughterhouse; she sees the ghastliness that is an Oklahoma feedlot. Along the way, she begins to understand some of the effects that these chemicals have had on her own body, and to live in a kind of anguished fear for her future. As these fears increase, her priorities shift: from wanting to tell the stories of the families, she begins to want to tell the story of the beef itself.
This is a book about authenticity. Jane is biracial, half Japanese, half white, and she constantly feels pressure to say what she “really” is and what culture she belongs to — particularly from her Japanese mother. Her television episodes become increasingly authentic, despite pressure from her employers to tell the narrative they want told. Her love for her boyfriend, Sloan, becomes more real and intimate, even with several painful mistakes and detours along the way. Akiko gropes toward a more authentic life, no matter what it may cost her, while her husband continues to try to force both her life and his into his preconceived ideas. Both Jane and Akiko read, and are connected by, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, with its lists of “Awful Things,” “Things of Beauty,” “Things that Give an Unclean Feeling,” and so on. The clean lines of this far-away woman’s thoughts give a tone of intimacy to the novel that transcends time.
And then, of course, there are the cows. Shot full of chemicals, fed plastic and concrete dust for cheap roughage, slaughtered in a terrifying assembly (or, rather, dissembly) line, it’s implied that they are not actually authentic cows at all. Ozeki takes a few detours to talk about chicken and pork as well, but like BEEF-EX with its “Pork is Possible, but Beef is Best” slogan, she focuses on the cows, and most readers of My Year of Meats will learn a lot before it’s over. It’s not even so much a question of knowledge, either; most of us know that these things exist in the world. It’s a question of awareness, of wanting to know. Of authenticity. Of what comes next.
In Ozeki’s version, what comes next is truth, and where there’s truth, there can be a life of peace. Both Jane and Akiko, in their different ways, tell their truths, and find a thread of hope they can follow to the future. It may not be a future they had ever imagined for themselves — it is a new world, full of uncertainty — but it has joy, relationship, and support they couldn’t have imagined either. This is a deeply interesting novel — funny, poignant, serious, farcical, hopeless and hopeful. It told story after story, and it made me want to read more.