Book: The Cannibal’s Guide to Ethical Living
Author: Mykle Hansen, illustrated by Nate Beaty
Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, cannibalism
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Okay, it’s like a Jonathan Swift satire mixed with that long riddle people tell on road trips about the man who orders seagull and runs screaming out of the restaurant with a tasty helping of Occupy Wall Street on the side.
Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Oh, this was a fabulous book, and it gives me an excuse to create a “cannibalism” category. It’s one of those books that is the exception that proves the rule. Hansen tells without showing and 90% of the book comes from the protagonist’s one-sided conversation with a man called Louis, both of which are in chapter one of What Not to Do When You Write a Novel, but Hansen gets away with it. Why André’s conversation is one-sided is one of those things I cannot reveal lest I utterly spoil the book. In fact, this is going to be a bear to discuss because I cannot reveal many plot elements without just ruining the book.
Bearing that in mind, here’s as brief a synopsis as my enthusiasm will permit: Aboard the good ship l’Arche, along the coast of an island called Cristobo, André and his partner Marko have been engaging in questionable culinary behaviors. One is that they serve unusual meats to millionaires. They lure in jaded millionaires with offerings like giraffe, dining aboard the ship in monied secrecy. But André and Marko also have an ulterior motive catering to millionaires – millionaires evidently make good eating and André embraces the idea of eating the rich. But millionaires also have friends with ships and the L’Arche is under siege as André and Marko scramble to find a way to escape. Louis, a long-time frenemy of André’s, plays a crucial role in all these goings-on but that’s where I have to stop. To discuss his role will expose too much of the story.
With the synopsis out of the way, but before I begin to discuss the meat of this book, as it were, I need to say that this is one of the better-written bizarro novels. Beautiful word flow, gorgeous word choice, decently-enough edited, I wanted to cry midway through it. I mean, there were some editing issues, but lately I’ve been smacked in the face and possibly on the ass with several terribly edited books. This book was the reward for not chucking out all the strange literature I try to consume and sticking exclusively with Dickens and Austen until the day I die.
And it’s so wonderful that Hansen got that right because this is a novel that demands intense attention to words. When writing of foodie cannibals, one needs a fussy precision and Hansen pulls it off brilliantly. Hansen conveys the near-neurotic attention to detail that foodies often exhibit. Not being a foodie myself, I have no idea if this is food-gibberish or not, but it sure has a decided foodie-riff to it.
…before you leave this place I will prepare for you my Millionaire in Limousine: steaming roasted loin of venture capitalist slow-braised in Madeira, served on a bed of squid-ink cabbage poached with chestnuts and Lardons Millionaires. You’ve never had anything like it. I also insist you try my Aspic Sweetbreads of Heiress Dissolu, molded in a swine’s head terrine and tiaraed with clove and apple. So light and delicate, you’d think it’s made of perfumed dreams.
You see André takes very seriously the consumption of long pig.
This is no mere restaurant – it’s a cathedral of food! Pilgrims to l’Arche have by our rare and exquisite flavors been transported, transmigrated, have communed with the great mystery, have wept with joy, have been saved.
Eating rich men is evidently quite a religious experience. And it is through monologue like this that Hansen deftly creates intense characterization. André does very little in this book, and he speaks mainly to Louis, who never responds, but at the end you end up with André as a character-in-full.
André has a specific sort of millionaire he likes to consume. Not just any will do.
It was late morning, a Cristobo waiter named Raoul and I were dumping a bucket of indigestibles over the leeward side, when the asinine scion of some spreadsheet fortune, fresh from Namibia, pulled alongside us on his bright red double-engined landing vessel – dispatched from the belly of a larger service vessel, that in turn follows his father’s truly gargantuan luxury liner around the globe – and deposited this poorly-bled, poorly-iced and shotgun-perforated beast onto our decks – one thousand pounds of unrefrigerated baby giraffe dropped from a crane like an immense spotted bony birdshit without so much as an “are you open?” – and instructed us to drop whatever else we were doing to get it ready for a late supper that evening for his friends. How many friends? What time? Not sure, he said, but save the skin, it’s valuable. And he adjusted his ludicrous sailor’s cap and motored away in a spray of salt water and hundred dollar bills.
That’s the kind of millionaire I like to eat.
And I’m okay with that. Baby giraffe indeed.
And that is the kind of millionaire we serve here at our humble bistro l’Arche: nouveau-riche gadabouts returning from chartered safaris with something they’ve killed. They’re drawn to us like calamari to the lamps of a fishing boat, and with them they bring lions, apes, pandas, eagles, elephants and more. They come to pay reverence to our motto: Consume Quod Interficis.
And again, I’m largely okay with this idea. If one makes a virtue of eating what one kills, perhaps it’s wrong to search for a larger morality in killing millionaires as long as one eats them.
Millionaires in the book, as well as in our current reality, have been taking it on the nose as the economy has been troubled and the poor have been grumbling, and millionaires do like to show their power via excess. André provides access to the ultimate excess.
Killing one another seems to be their latest distraction. An elegant form of internecine warfare has become popular among the rich. They’re armoring their yachts, fitting them with extravagant cannons. They’re arriving at l’Arche under heavier security, with larger and more numerous bodyguards, and their spring fashion is for hand-tooled leather holsters and designer bandoliers.
Some months back I had an interesting chat with a charming millionaire who posited, over a butter-braised polar bear paw and a second bottle of Riesling, that the world’s rich had been milking one another like an interconnected system of cows for over a decade, without once pausing to ingest any grass. This man called for a great reckoning, a final audit of who owns what and who owes who, and while he didn’t say as much, I imagine his accounting practices were coarser than yours or mine. He seemed to relish the coming struggle: a chance to test his new guns. Millionaires do, I’ve found, enjoy a good struggle, especially when they spot an advantage in the rules.
Curiously, that same millionaire was delivered to our service entrance just a few days later, packed in ice and stripped of belongings – the trophy of another, larger millionaire.
Still, André waxes philosophical about his unsavory blood lust, engaging in rationalizations that make sense but also help him avoid taking on moral baggage:
Food is life, yes, but also: food is death. It’s life eating life. Others must die so that we may live; there’s never enough food for everybody. The decision to live is the decision to kill. The rest is boring details that animals don’t bother with: vegetarianism, veganism, localism, ethical practices, kosherness, organicness – who shall we kill, in others words, and how shall we kill them? Those are the highest values that we may aspire to, we who have decided to live.
I did try to be a vegetarian once, but vegetarianism no longer impresses me. They never wonder where their fields come from, or who had to be removed to make room for the plow. They have no sense of history. Show me a farm, and I’ll show you a battlefield. Vegetarians fetishize inaction, as I once did. They can brag about the evils they don’t do, but what is the good they do instead.
Well, one would assume the good they do instead is not eat giraffe, panda and their neighbor’s kid, but André is not really willing to make such distinctions. But as I read, I realized, to my own terrible shame, that if André had, in fact, just stuck to eating terrible humans, I would have been on André’s side.
But amusing to me was how after André justifies his semi-savage “kill for food” philosophical, he follows it with a sort of apology that one can sort sum up as “return the pain”:
The millionaires, they do not suffer. Yes, they do on occasion have problems – loneliness, infidelity, deceased pets – but generally the millionaires delegate their actual suffering to others. A great deal of human suffering is, in fact, the misplaced suffering of millionaires.
Here at l’Arche we return their lost suffering to them. We help them understand how the other half hurts. That is but one of the many elite services we provide.
Yeah, being skinned, spatchcocked like a chicken and cooked slowly can bring suffering into sharp focus, if only for a few minutes.
But the parts I enjoyed the best were when André describes how his despicable palate serves a greater justice.
The very existence of the millionaires, in the shoddiest of mismanaged countries and at the tops of the most modern western hotels, is an ancient and confounding puzzle. How do they convince the rest of humanity to feed them? How do they dodge the obvious complaint: that they take too much and give too little? In a world of enlightened cooperation they would be banned, taxed, reprimanded, even jailed – or so one would think, but even the socialists have their millionaires. Power simply seems to concentrate, like clots in the blood or lumps in the gravy. In a world of self-interest and greed you’d expect millionaires to be the constant victims of robbery, assault, kidnapping – and true, these things do happen, but with nothing near the frequency needed to make a dent in the millionaire problem.
Take out the part about their power and this is not dissimilar to the reasons why people hunt deer in Central Texas.
André has what he calls an ethical philosophy regarding eating the glut of millionaires:
Let us husband them well, the millionaires. Give them their yachts, their many homes, many cars, many hand-stitched suits of clothing. Send them to the best schools and largest boardrooms. This is what makes them millionaires – what makes them fat and rich and wholesome. Give them the best life that an edible creature could possibly live. It’s what the new organic cattle ranchers have tried to do with their beef, of course, but to a far greater degree than has ever been attempted – indeed to the greatest degree possible. Spare no effort in fattening the rich, work for them and tithe to them and massage them and groom them and put their needs ahead of our own. As it has always been, so let it remain.
Until! Until that day comes when we require their sacrifice, for the greater good. Oh, the ceremony of it: picture this year’s wealthiest industrialists proceeding to the regal altar, bedecked in finest Gucci and Versace, encrusted with fourteen karat gold jewelry and sophisticated personal electronics. We shall thank them publicly, cheer them sincerely, stun them carefully, slaughter them with dignity and roast them with joy.
Free-range millionaires. I still have to think a lot of them would be very gamy.
This book was a big surprise for me. I was not prepared to enjoy a book about eating the likes of Donald Trump so much. The book offers some fine writing, a tense plot toward the end, and enjoyable lectures delivered by a lunatic. I wish I could reveal more of André’s struggles but to do so really would spoil the plot. So buy this book and find out the rest. Find out why Louis is so quiet. Find out if one should fear Marko. Find out how the millionaires respond. Highly recommended.