Carnivore Diet, the first novel by Julia Slavin, takes place in a world in which post-apocalyptic disasters coexist in bland equipoise with everyday banalities like barbecues and marital infidelity. The carnivore of the title is a monster called a “chagwa,” which settles in the backyard of a typically untypical family—the son, Dylan, is a washed-up child actor, the ex-congressman father is in prison, and the mother, Wendy, is a pill addict. The chagwa stalks Dylan, kills almost everyone in sight, and yet somehow stays ineffable and cute.
Though Carnivore Diet is chock full of slapstick—the characters keep hurrying around on fruitless errands; at one point, Dylan steals a pony, then returns it—there is almost no real plot. At no time do characters make choices under pressure and struggle to live on with the consequences, and the story doesn’t progress so much as gather up futilities. Wendy is failed by countless men: her husband, her doctor, her lover, and a swarthy, Clintonesque man of mystery named Ben Sotterberg, who seduces and dumps her. Medicine fails her, politics fail her, a stint in an asylum fails her, and, in a bit of insouciant political incorrectness, vegetarianism fails her. Many of her scenes take place in rooms with lavish buffets: Even luxury porn fails her. Failure is inscribed into this world where connections are impossible.
Dylan, the son, fares no better. He loses his job as a voice actor, and the chagwa’s obsession with him, which is covered in the press, makes him an outcast. His courtships of girls are unsuccessful; a flirtation with a boy begins with promise but is thwarted by his boot-camp counselor. At one point, he asks, “I wonder what it could possibly be like to have someone you could have sex with whenever you wanted, with no rigamarole,” a plaint which all of us have made, and which is answered by his mother, whose tryst with Ben Sotterberg fails when, in a grueling scene, she’s unable to pee on him.
The chagwa lurks at the fringes of the book’s hunky-dory dystopia, coloring its many ambiguities.The creature’s genitalia can transform, and a scientist describes it as “the original hermaphrodite.” SWAT teams repeatedly dispatched to kill the chagwa can’t determine how many of them exist. The creature never stops pursuing Dylan, and at one point takes him in its mouth, but doesn’t kill him. This encounter is the hottest action Dylan ever gets.The would-be shambles of the plot is in fact a highly ordered little structure, with the logic of a prison, where its characters are trapped. There is nothing for Wendy or Dylan to decide—for action, as we’ve come to understand it, is no longer possible. As Wendy says before a barbecue she knows will be dreadful, “We fixed up our homes, renewed old connections, then remembered why we’d broken those connections, and ended them again.”
The purpose of surrealism is not to just to capture the world’s new oddness—and few of the effects in this book are really all that original; they evoke George Saunders— but to discover new interior realities. In this way, the bleakness of Carnivore Diet is refreshing. Encouragement in fiction can feel tantamount to lying, while fatalism leaves us oddly buoyant. This is why we love Gregor Samsa, Prince Myshkin, and Vladimir and Estragon: Their authors don’t insult our intelligence. They offer a vicarious experience of despair, which is the complex consolation of reading. Carnivore Diet is not quite the work of Dostoevsky, but in this brave, essential, and unfashionable way, it succeeds.