THE BATTERY CAGE | John Grabski.
Perhaps foremost among humanity’s innate skills is our incredible capacity for denial. For a simple demonstration of this denial, go to a Fourth of July barbecue, where everyone’s chowing down on various grilled amalgamations of meat and meat segments, and over a glass of semi-warm lemonade or can of PBR, bring up the horrific backstory of these grilled amalgamations of meat and/or meat segments (i.e. what they were before they wound up in a bun beneath layers of Heinz product).
Then watch your fellow partygoers’ denial spring forth like so many socially mortified porcupine quills.
This scenario also brings up another of humanity’s greatest innate skills: a person’s ability to be a self-righteous dick.
In a society full of controversies, the Animal Rights debate is by far the strangest; it’s so one-sided, and yet the side that’s clearly in the right and which has evidence and common sense and basic ethics in its corner is losing terribly to the side that’s armed with nothing more intelligent than a collective shrug (oh well… I like the taste of meat…).
But I’m digressing before I even start on today’s story, which is focused on one particular issue within the animal rights/animal welfare scene: the infamous battery cage.
I recently studied with an editor who talked about every story in terms of the risks that they took. Just like in the worlds of investment or innovation in general, the greater the risk, the greater the potential reward. Let’s take a look at some of the risks that John Grabski takes in his flash fiction “The Battery Cage”:
- Exploring a hot-button social/political controversy: people get fired up over this one, and sometimes a piece with a moralistic or message-y thrust is going to find its story overshadowed by its agenda–so that’s something to watch out for
- The narration/POV is from the perspective of a hen, speaking, for the most part, in the voice of her cohort
- Further, the anthropomorphism–an extension of that strategy, is pretty extensive: all the chickens have names and (to some extent) personalities
- There are constant references to the abuse inflicted on these birds, reinforcing the story’s animal rights agenda but potentially scaring off some readers through the sheer horror of the images
Make no mistake, the four bullet points above are not in and of themselves problems or weaknesses; they are merely areas that could either help or hurt the story, and which deserve a lot of focus. I can’t state with any authority whether the above risks are absolutely successful or not. I think this story, with the particular risks that it takes, is going to be successful in the eyes of some readers and problematic for others.
Personally, I find the story successful; I think the risks pay off. Here’s why:
- Though there is an obvious agenda, a message to this story, the author prioritizes story and world-building: the battery cages in this factory farm are a neighborhood, the “onion head” who rules over them is a sort of deity (not the benevolent kind)–there is a sort of mythology in place, a culture and geography and conflict. It gives the reader something to invest in, beyond the horrors.
- Animal narration is tough to pull off. Giving the chickens human traits and names makes them relatable, characters rather than commodities. No one wants to be emotionally invested in an animal they’re getting paid to mutilate.
- The abuse references are both inevitable and essential to the point of the story, which is to highlight the suffering caused by battery cages. If the reader is uncomfortable, the story has succeeded at its goal.
In conclusion, Tofurkey makes one hell of a vegan sausage. It’s available in a lot of supermarkets. Grill it up, cover it with Sriracha, you’ve got one great barbecue, without harming a single animal.