Garbage is something I can deal with. Garbage mixed into fine cordon bleu is another. Cows has a good idea, and it’s written well. Unfortunately, it’s charley-horsed at every step by its own identity: it’s a transgressive fiction book full of extreme gore and sex. This book doesn’t need extreme gore and sex. It would have been better off without it.
It entails a young man (with a dysfunctional home life) who gets a job slaughtering cows at an abattoir, and how that job begins to warp his mind. His meathook-inspired self-actualization is simple. At home, he’s a downtrodden worm. At work, he has the power of a Biblical god over an endless procession of animals. But he’s the same man he was at home, so why doesn’t he bring Muhammad to the mountains, as it were?
Cows is never more powerful and unsettling than in quiet scenes of the main character watching TV, dreaming of a better life. Cows is never so cartoonish and boring in its scenes of the protagonist shitting into his mother’s mouth and raping cow carcasses. The shock value soon stops being shocking, like a ten gallon drum of sugar will soon stop tasting sweet. Cows soon sickens into something annoying and even a bit comedic, like a Paul Jennings book for the William S Burroughs crowd.
Starting halfway through, Cows starts going off into various surrealistic directions, which damages the plot integrity still more. Cows works fine when it plays things straight. Talking animals, however, queer the pitch.
Cows illustrates an interesting fact about transgressive fiction: it is hard to get right. For a book of this kind to succeed, it needs something extra…whether that something is a sharp poetic edge (Aldapuerta’s The Eyes, Havoc’s White Skull, or Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden), an umbilicus to reality that denies the reader the safe distance of fantasy (Peter Sotos’s books), or satire and social commentary of some sort (American Psycho, some Palahniuk things I suppose).
I think Stokoe was going the satire route (parts of the book read a little like Fight Club), but the outrageous OTTness is the least successful thing about it, and tends to spoil the more subtle and textured parts of the book. The result is something like a dark Chopin movement drowned out by random blasts of white noise. There’s moments of genuine depth juxtaposed by ridiculous scenes where not just a single bull is crashing through a china shop but a whole herd of them.
Cows never delivers on its potential…but it never disavows its potential, either. Parts of the book are effective. The character’s sense of alienation is real. Cows could have been great if Stokoe had been satisfied with something milder, but he piles on tired “transgressive” stuff as if he has a quota to meet, and the result is a corresponding disappointment. It’s a shame to see a book ignoring its own strengths.