A novel indictment on factory farming

By Thrity Umrigar
June 21, 2010

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Some books we love; others we admire. Don LePan’s debut novel, “Animals,’’ falls firmly in the second category.

In an unusually candid author’s afterword, LePan confesses that his intention in writing the novel was to draw attention to the barbarity of the practice of factory farming. Not that we need the afterword. Although set 100 years into the future, the entire novel is a thinly disguised rant about the horrors of contemporary large-scale farms where animals are raised in inhumane conditions.

The central conceit involves the coming of an era of great extinctions when all the animals that humans once consumed have been wiped out. Society has created a category of sub-humans, known as the mongrels, those who are “defective’’ in some way. To meet their craving for meat, humans have started to fatten and then consume the mongrels, often by the time they are 10 or 11 years old.

There are not too many authors who can pull off a novel that is essentially about adults feeding on their human young. But LePan has an affectless, dispassionate writing style, and he convincingly paints a picture of a callous, self-serving, dystopian world. The novel operates at two levels — first, there is the regular narrative, about Sam, a young mongrel abandoned by his destitute mother. Sam is taken in by Carrie and Zayne Stinton after their daughter Naomi finds him on their doorstep and begs her parents to “adopt’’ him as a pet. But Carrie is never quite at ease with Naomi’s growing attachment to Sam and commits an impulsive act that has lasting reverberations. Sam’s eventual plight, of course, is meant to symbolize the desperate plight of animals at the large agro-industrial farms of today.

Not trusting his reader to glean the symbolic meaning of his narrative, LePan continually interrupts this main story line with a parallel narrative, which purports to be a scholarly, historical overview of life in the aftermath of the great extinctions, a description of the willfully blind ways in which society operates, and the multitude of everyday cruelties it afflicts upon its most powerless members.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, “Animals’’ ain’t exactly summer beach reading. Indeed, LePan doesn’t seem all that interested in standard literary techniques such as plot and character development. The story, such as it is, exists only to illuminate the message of the book. This is a political tract disguised as a novel and LePan offers no apologies for this.

And yet, almost despite itself, the novel achieves moments of grace. LePan has an astute understanding of the contradictions and weaknesses of human nature. His portrayal of the weak, confused Zayne and the indomitable Carrie is particularly trenchant. And the scenes of Sam in the pen where the mongrels are taken to await slaughter are harrowing. Despite his inability to speak, Sam’s humanity comes across to us as clearly as it does to Naomi, and so the ending packs an emotional wallop.

There is something admirable about a novel that does not want to be loved, that simply wants to be read and discussed. “Animals’’ may not be a book you recommend to your best friends as a must-read. But it will most certainly make you look at that steak on your dinner plate a little differently.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of a memoir and four novels, including the best-selling “The Space Between Us,’’ and her recent novel, “The Weight of Heaven.’’ She can be reached at

By Don LePan
Soft Skull, 176 pp., paperback, $13.95