It’s written as a series of six interviews, which confers a ‘news’ item or exposé feel to the events detailed and enables the reader, at least initially, to approach them with a degree of detachment.
In the first interview we have Charles ‘Chuck’ Williams, a Feedlot Manager for Bryson Foods, describing working conditions at the plant where he is employed in Emporia, Kansas, which it appears are far from ideal. His references to ‘the cattle’ bring to mind factory farming, but there are suggestions of something else – the illustration that comes with the story looks more like a prison than any farm, with barbed wire atop its walls, and accounts of how the cows have their fingers cut off to stop them escaping, with the revelation that these cattle can actually speak.
In the second interview Charlene Worth, a resident of Emporia, voices environmental concerns about the plant and its ‘lake of feces’, all of which pretty much boil down to the usual NIMBY spiel.
The third interview, with Bryson CEO John Bryson, is two parts PR to one part self-justification, spelling out the philosophy behind that ‘Bryson Feeds Families’ tagline, with a smattering of corporate jargon and brand jingoism. All the buzz words of big business – ‘infrastructure’, ‘core values’ ‘sustainability’ etc – are trotted out, along with references to statistics and the value for money represented by Bryson’s end product. In particular he emphasises the care with which the cattle are treated – ‘At Bryson, we’re committed to minimizing the stress and discomfort of the animals’. But he also uses terms like ‘human animals’ and ‘blood products’, so the reader has a fair idea what this ‘farming’ is really about by now.
In the fourth interview an organic farmer puts forward a dissenting point of view, emphasising a more environmentally friendly regime, one that is kinder to the animals. But behind all the rhetoric, the end goal is still the same – ‘more calves, and higher body weights’. And Cloudhawk Jones won’t go as far as some of his organic brethren – ‘There are even some ranchers who let the livestock come into their houses, let them watch TV and surf the internet.’
For the fifth, brief interview, Lionel Cheng, a professor of ethics, explains how the system came into being, and questions the morality of it all, though ultimately he doesn’t have anything much to say, because there really isn’t any valid alternative, at least as he sees things.
For the last interview, Gilbert Novak, a former employee of Bryson, explains more about the mechanics of the plant, and their way of doing things. But he concludes by giving us an account of the moment that changed his outlook and made him give up his job, the sight of a cow mourning the loss of its calf, a moment that made him realise that he shared common ground with the cattle, because in reality this is a mother grieving for its child – ‘But seeing that, it kind of broke my heart, you know?’
This story is set in a world ruled by vampires (though the V word is never used), forced by circumstance to forget their previous condition and use the human majority as feed stock to survive, with the Bryson plant bringing to mind similar operations in films like Thirst (1979) and Blade, or the books of Charlie Huston. With this knowledge, going back and reading some of the earlier statements, we find that they assume an entirely different significance – Charles ‘Chuck’ Williams isn’t disgusted by the smell of blood at his work place as we might first have thought, but excited by it and concerned that he won’t be able to control himself.
The story doesn’t depend on the ‘vampire’ twist for its horror. At bottom it’s an exercise in seeing ourselves as others might see us, this in turn forcing us to think about how we regard and treat those below us in the food chain. It’s also about how language can be manipulated to make the unacceptable seem comfortingly banal (redefine ‘people’ as ‘cattle’ and anything is permissible, a trick of perspective that’s always been the mainstay of the bigot’s repertoire and fascist rhetoric).
Reading between the lines, “Bryson Feeds Families” is imbued with a strong sense of disgust at the excesses of factory farming and the way in which corporatespeak manages to make black seem white, bringing to mind Joseph D’Lacey’s novel Meat, and we can conjecture if the subtext is banging the drum for vegetarianism, or simply opening our eyes to the fact that our existence is always at the cost of some other creature’s misery.
As William Burroughs put it one of his books, this is the moment when everyone gets to see what’s really on the end of their forks, and we have to decide for ourselves if we’re happy or not with how it got there.