Death and suffering are a big part of writing. A big part. (To paraphrase and turn upon the gifted Joy Williams; see page 49.) And you can't waste satire or pure hardcore ridicule on targets unworthy of the name. You've got to go after the people who kill animals, and you can't spare anybody. Sure it's duck soup to take aim at the National Rifle Association and the few Big Game Machos left in the world. Duck soup. And the sickie scientists who lobotomize chimps and torture rabbits just to see how long they can take it, their white coats starched and pressed, their nimble fingers taking copious notes. These targets are too easy. In the final analysis you gotta get the burger eaters, every one of them, not just the Super-Sized that waddle into the Burger King or the suburban Mommas sneaking out of the Krispy Kreme, bags of donuts like warm puppies under both arms, mouths stuffed. No, you've got to get the photo safari people who kill merely with their privileged, ignorant, dilettante PRESENCE in jungleland, a lily-livered affront to nature, over-tipping the guides and spilling martinis and overexposed film onto the purity of the veldt.
At any rate, this is the Joy Williams rant, and what I say is rant on, Voltaire!
This collection of magazine essays begins with "Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp" in which Williams goes after the wishy-washy, faux lovers of nature, addressing them (in effect) as hey "you" with the "Big Gulp cups." Next is a short-short about rhesus monkeys being raised for laboratory research on an island charmingly called "Key Lois" (Laboratory Observing Island Simians). Williams follows this with "Safariland" in which she makes fun of the photo safari experience, reducing it to a kind of Disneyland with mosquito netting.
So far Joy Williams is just satirizing. Next comes a particularly brutal short-short on wildebeests, how they can't migrate to water during the dry season as they have for millions of years because there's a cattle fence that keeps them from the water they can smell. Williams is particularly vivid as she describes thousands of them up against the fence dying of thirst. But she's only warming up. In the next piece, "The Killing Game" and in a later piece, "The Animal People" we experience the full monty of Joy Williams unleashed. Now her writing becomes (as she describes it in the final essay entitled "Why I Write") "unelusive and strident and brashly one-sided." Her words are "meant to annoy and trouble and polarize, and they made readers...half nuts with rage and disdain." (pp. 209-210)
I believe it. I too love the animals, but I'd bet protozoa to primates that she'd find my efforts sadly lacking and my attitude wimpishly laissez faire.
I guess the best way to demonstrate the intent and style of this remarkable book is to just quote Joy Williams. Here's the opening lines of "The Case against Babies":
BABIES, BABIES, BABIES. There's a plague of babies. Too many rabbits or elephants or mustangs or swans brings out the myxomatosis, the culling guns, the sterility drugs, the scientific brigade of egg smashers. Other species can "strain their environments" or "overrun their range" or clash with their human "neighbors," but human babies are always welcome at life's banquet. Welcome, Welcome, Welcome--Live Long and Consume!
Joy Williams really is a kind of earthy Voltaire, a kind of meat cleaver (as opposed to rapier) Voltaire, a kind of take no prisoners master of satire, burlesque, ridicule and just plain old verbal assassination.
But she raises a profound and demoralizing question: what IS going to happen to all the animals that we claim to love so much? Both Joy Williams and I know. Only those fully compatible with humans (dogs, cats, aquarium fish) or those we can't do anything about (rats, mice, crows, sea gulls, sparrows) will survive. Joy knows this and she's angry. Her anger shows. But she's also resigned and that shows too. I know this not merely because of her tone but because of what she writes on page 209: "Nothing the writer can do is ever enough."
The denouement of the book (strangely it has one; Joy Williams is an artist) comes in the penultimate essay, "Hawk." Here we are stunned to learn that "Hawk," her German shepherd dog, whom she referred to as "my sweetie pie, my honey, my handsome boy, my love," whom she would kiss fondly on the nose, turned on her one day as she was leaving him at the vet and savagely bit into and ripped at her breast and then gnawed her arms, and had to be not destroyed, but given euthanasia and cremated.
I don't know what to say about this benumbing turn. Really I think Joy Williams is an artist whose inner artistic nature rises over and above her normal consciousness and tells us the truth in a way ordinary consciousness never could; and even here in a collection of non-fictional essays she has consciously or unconsciously employed the techniques of the master story teller that she is, and left us with a queasy sense of the madness of life while demonstrating that there is so much beyond our understanding.
This extraordinary book should be read not so much for the overpowering arguments against our misuse of animals, or for the undeniable demonstration of our "ill nature," but for the perfect power of her words. Anyone with any pretension toward mastery of language ought to read Joy Williams. In doing so we too might learn to write, as she does, in a manner that is "beautiful and menacing and slightly out of control." (p. 210)