TENDER IS THE FLESH has been on my radar for a while but I was a little worried about picking it up because it sounded intense and, as I have said in previous reviews, I am a soft and jellied wimp when it comes to horror. And this is no gentle, easy read: it's a dystopian work translated from Spanish (by way of Argentina) about a futuristic world in which a plague has rendered animals poisonous to humans, so humans are being born and bred for the consumption of other humans, either literally (as meat) or consumeristically (for sport, "leather," or extremely niche and sadistic forms of fetish sex).
***WARNING: this review will have spoilers and will discuss extremely disturbing things that happen in this book***
I am not a vegetarian but I don't actually eat a lot of meat, for a combination of reasons, which resolve around health (too much meat, especially processed, can lead to colon cancer and pancreatic cancer, among other health risks), ethical reasons (mass-produced meat is often taken from facilities that don't raise or slaughter animals humanely, and takes a huge toll on the environment), and financial (meat is expensive and alternatives are a lot cheaper (it's very easy to make seitan from vital wheat protein, or soak up and fry some textured vegetable protein-- and unlike 90s alternatives, it tastes great). I've read FAST FOOD NATION and watched interviews with Temple Grandin (an autistic woman who is famous for how she has helped change meat processing plants for the better, to be more humane, because of her incredible ability to empathize with animals), so I already know that a lot of the times, knowing the secrets behind the food on your table can sometimes leave you thinking that ignorance is bliss. But it's also sticking your head in the sand, because at the end of the day, you do vote with your wallet, and I feel like people who can afford to care should care about what goes on the table and in their mouths.
In U.S. culture (and other cultures as well, I assume) there's this almost fetishistic view of meat among some people. It seems to be tied into masculinity, as if by eating meat you prove somehow either your virility, or your complete dominion over the so-called lesser beings that inhabit this world. People lob around the insult "soy-boy," as if eating soy over dairy somehow makes someone less of a man, because real men eat meat. Bazterrica runs with this premise in her book, where the government has converted the way they process meat to accommodate for human flesh, and shows, by replacing with animals with humans, how utterly inhumane the meat industry is, and how we, as a society, dissociate ourselves from the process by which an animal becomes food. We even see that removal begin in the language itself: pigs become pork, baby cows become veal, sheep become mutton, etc.
Marcos, our narrator, is a depressed man who works in such a facility. His father is dying with dementia and his wife has left him following the death of their baby. He hates the meat industry and he hates that they don't call it what it is, tiptoeing around semantics by referring to human meat as "special meat" or as "head" when they're alive. Infractions can result in death, with those who commit the crimes ending up as meat, as well. He still remembers a time when real animals were slaughtered, and he knows that some people are unable to come to terms with this. His father is one of those people, and we are led to believe that this is one of the reasons for his cognitive decline. When Marcos is gifted a premium-grade human woman as a gift by his employer, she's the last thing he wants, but he ends up raising her as a pet and then as something more, as the line between consumer and consumed becomes terrifyingly thin.
This book wasn't as bad as I was expecting it to be-- I think because I've had to participate in a biology lab and have had to be wrist-deep in organs for science. People were a little cagey on the details, so if you're worried about whether this book will be too much for you, I will say that it goes into pretty great detail on the slaughtering process. There's an entire chapter about how humans are stunned, killed, and packaged. There's a part about human experimentation, run by a pretty sadistic doctor that the hero compares to Menegle (who was a Nazi scientist, in case you didn't know). There's animal cruelty, where a group of teens beat a bunch of puppies to death. And then there's a whole bunch of minor cruelties mentioned in asides. Pregnant "head" get their arms and legs cut off so they can't damage their babies. Rock stars and celebrities can sell themselves into a hunt, where gun nuts can hunt them and then eat them. One of these freaks captures and kills a famous rock star and brags about how eating his dick will make him virile. There are brothels that let you fuck and then kill women, and one of these same freaks refers to the process of raping the fourteen-year-old he eats as "tenderizing," jokingly.
The ending is disturbing and infuriating because I feel like it implies that a lot of our moral outrage is hypocritical and results in non-action, or is a mask for our own sublimated desires and cognitive dissonance. Which is a sad and depressing thought, but anyone who's ever been on Twitter knows that sometimes people who scream the loudest (or in all caps) can be huge hypocrites. I've seen people on Goodreads try to cancel authors for writing problematic queer rep, who also have J.K. Rowling books on their shelves with five-star ratings. I guess the point of dystopians is to make people uncomfortable and force people to confront incredibly jarring aspects of society, but this message is particularly chilling.
As a thought experiment, I think this book works, and it's no more or less disturbing than some of the classic dystopian novels I was forced to read for school, like 1984, BRAVE NEW WORLD, MAKE ROOM, MAKE ROOM! (the inspiration for the movie, Soylent Green), LOGAN'S RUN, or THE HANDMAID'S TALE. As a cohesive world in and of itself, I have questions. It doesn't really tackle some of the problems with eating human meat, such as prion disease (there was a group of people in Papua New Guinea who ended up with prion disease because of ritualistic cannibalism where they consumed their dead), or insect alternatives. For example, crickets/cricket flour has as much protein as skinless chicken. Were insects also victim to this so-called plague? (Which, the book hints, might not even exist-- the government might have made up a plague just to give themselves an excuse to legalize and legitimize cannibalism as an extreme form of population control, and yet another way for the rich to consume the poor, this time figuratively).
I feel like I need to read something happy now.
3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars