By Deb Olin Unferth
282 pp. And Other Stories. £10.
It’s rare that any work of fiction, be it novel or film, TV series or serialized romance, can be dubbed “bad,” as such a label is almost always subjective. There are times, however, when the word “bad” can be more generally applied. When we’re talking about spoiled meat, for example, or the new novel by Deb Olin Unferth, “Barn 8.”
Yes, my friends. Rest assured that this is a bad novel. The kind of novel that threatens to destroy the joy one finds in reading, that makes you turn away from the stack of books on your nightstand, feigning sleep even when not tired.
One day, as children, my sister and I were making eggs. She cracked her egg against the pan and, instead of the familiar yellow yoke, out came blood and fragments of baby chick.
My sister wouldn’t eat eggs for years after that.
It was only last year, when visiting her and her husband in Denver, that I realized she’d gone back to eating eggs. We were having brunch at a local restaurant and I noticed she was munching avocado toast with a poached egg on top. “You’re eating eggs again?” I asked. “I started eating them again last year,” she replied. “Now I love them.”
This after going more than 20 years without.
Fortunately, I have a stronger constitution, so reading “Barn 8” hasn’t led to a similar revulsion, in this case for all things written.
But it could, which is why I’m writing this as something of a public service announcement, an important disclaimer. Do NOT read this yourself, and most certainly do not give this to your kids to read, as they’ll become one of those philistines incapable of sitting down and watching “Parasite” for hatred of subtitles.
To put it more bluntly, if stranded on a desert island with only this book, do not waste time putting it to immediate use in building a fire.
Bizarrely, it all actually started out well enough.
Janey, a 15-year-old girl in New York City, discovers that her mother has been keeping her father’s identity a secret from her, so she promptly flies out to Iowa to spend some time with her newly realized father, only to discover that they have absolutely nothing in common — he does live in Iowa, after all — and she’s all geared up to go back home except that then her mother, who Janey’s refused to talk to ever since finding out she had a father, gets killed in a car accident, and as she has no other family, Janey is then stuck with dear old dad, both of whom hate this new arrangement and live in a state of shared hostility over the next several years. I actually enjoyed this, it felt different, such unhappy characters, such unhappy events, and all this, mind you, in the first 30 pages!
But then things get very strange, and “Barn 8” suddenly morphs from somewhat intriguing family drama into a ridiculously goofy heist-thing that feels like it was written in a collaborative hodgepodge by the children of PETA activists. Think “Ocean’s Eleven” with chickens. Except it’s more like “Ocean’s 422” because the number of characters who are introduced over like three pages (basically one new character per line) is head-scratching in its rationale — and there’s no Brad Pitt or George Clooney among them.
Why are we being introduced to characters we’re not going to hear of again? Other than Janey, every character here is about as developed as any of the 900 odd-thousand chickens they “rescue” from the barn, except the one that goes “bwaaak” because that one is comparatively developed enough to be played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film version.
I cannot emphasize enough how jarring the shift in tone between these two parts is. If it weren’t for the main character’s name staying the same, you would think that someone had ripped the first 30 pages off one book, and pasted 220 pages from some other, truly horrible thing, on top of it. It’s got a sort of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler thing about it, except that it’s as horrible as that Italo Calvino treasure is good.
If anyone says they liked this book, what they mean is that they liked the message, which is that factory farming and the battery farms they stick hundreds of thousands of chickens into are bad. You won’t hear me arguing otherwise.
The problem is that “Barn 8” doesn’t just do books a disservice, it does important issues like animal rights and sustainable agriculture a disservice as well. In this case, it isn’t the message that should be shot down, it’s the messenger.