Early novels about the crimes of the US agriculture industry, although written with the noblest of intentions, can be didactic to the point of dullness — does anybody mourn the fact that Frank Norris never completed “The Epic of the Wheat”? Confronted with the evils of industrial farming and eager to share their findings with 20th-century readers, writers like Norris and Upton Sinclair spent so much energy describing pure carnage — of animals, of landscapes, of the human spirit under capitalism — that their books read as collections of overwrought set pieces.
For those scarred by the titans of the social novel, “Barn 8” doesn’t seem a terribly appealing prospect. For starters, it’s a book about the hideous Moloch that is the industrial egg farm. Making matters worse, it began, like “The Jungle,” as a journalistic project, when Deb Olin Unferth visited factory chicken farms on assignment for Harper’s. Like Sinclair, Unferth was clearly and deeply freaked out by what she saw. But where “The Jungle” plods, “Barn 8” pirouettes. Instead of a ham-fisted effort to confront the reader with the evils of the world, the author has put forth an incredibly nimble and frequently amusing book worthy of its deathly serious subject, one that invites the reader to think rather than merely witness.
Like the greatest social novels — Dos Passos’s “The 42nd Parallel” and Heller’s “Catch-22,” duh — “Barn 8” focuses on the individual lives of its many characters. Farmers, activists, park rangers, and even a hen get a say in how agribusiness affects them. At the center of it all is Janey Flores, a grieving young woman who, after relocating to Iowa farm country, gets a job making sure egg farms are up to code. Pushed to the brink by horrible (yet basically legal) conditions, Janey’s supervisor begins stealing away a few chickens and relocating them to local animal sanctuaries. Soon, Janey joins the saboteur and hatches a scheme to divest an entire farm of its birds, which brings in a ragtag group of animal-rights activists and kicks off the plot.
Chapters about the chicken heist are action-packed and propulsive. Unferth has a highly individual way of spinning a ripping yarn, one that uses ethology, paleontology, European history, and contemporary agricultural methods. Further, she imbues her characters with funny and wise observations. Take, for instance, this line in a scene where a character is observing a chicken cage: “Anything ninety degrees will do but a nice clean rectangle, that’s all we hope for in life: to be surrounded by them, to count them, to divide our belongings up in them, to give them to our grandchildren, to be lowered into one when we die.”
No mere digressions, observations like these show help show that the plight of our beleaguered egg-layers to be a universal one. To learn, for instance, how chickens were once revered as totems of motherhood, or how long it might take chicken poop to dissolve in groundwater, drives home how their savage treatment at the hands of industry has practical and existential implications for both man- and chicken-kind.
Unferth is no stranger to writing about big ideas. Her previous works include the uniquely self-deprecating memoir “Revolution,” a book about her youthful, futile activism in Central America, and “Vacation,” a hallucinogenic novel about a man with a traumatic brain injury. Both display a keen interest in the limitations of individual consciousness, the inevitability of unintended consequences, and the intersection of the personal with the political. In this way, “Barn 8” seems like the natural progression of her art, one that pings around different times, places, and species while asking profound questions that it even sometimes answers.
High-mindedness aside, it is Unferth’s characters that shine the brightest. Issues-driven novels sometimes suffer from thinly drawn composites. Not “Barn 8.” While Janey and her compelling personal journey invite the reader in, even the most minor characters feel terribly alive. Whether they appear for an extended sequence or a few pages, all are deeply flawed, hopelessly myopic, and extremely likable. They embark on quixotic journeys for weird reasons and fall in love at the drop of a hat. Most of all, they are terrific guides and soothing antidotes to the high crimes of US agriculture and the environmental cataclysm that industry is helping to foment.
Eugenia Williamson is a critic at work on a cultural history of the nineties.
Deb Olin Unferth
Graywolf Press, 296 pages, $16