Just as we continue to ask, “if a tree falls, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound” we might also ask, “if 500 people plan to remove nearly one million hens from commercial barns, without attempting to make a political statement, is it still a political statement?” Deb Olin Unferth’s latest offering, Barn 8, dedicates more than 200 pages to answering that exact question, getting closer and closer to an answer without truly needing to offer one. In an age that has rendered activism and political statements performative and thus largely ineffective in terms of making practical change, the novel is a testament to the opposite: understated effectiveness. Though the hen heist is largely unsuccessful, that’s not the point. Rather, it’s that Unferth has written a novel pointing out that human conviction, not publicity, must drive any kind of movement.
Janey Flores arrives in Iowa in the novel’s opening pages to meet her dad, whom her mother left behind years prior for a better life on the East coast. Janey’s mother, Olivia, dies almost immediately after Janey arrives, and the reader is told that if Janey herself hadn’t left, she would have died too. Whatever conventionally promising life she was supposed to have had in a large city quickly fades to the rearview mirror, as Janey starts school in the middle of nowhere and takes an auditing job at hen farms. Her life feels fake, but then starts to become real the further removed she is from what American media believes to be “real life.” That is, one lived in a city, with access to expensive coffee shops and over-priced made-for-you-on-the-spot salads.
She meets Cleveland, the girl-now-woman whom her mom used to babysit and who becomes a combination of an older sister and mother figure to her. Except, of course, they have the audacity to remove nearly a million hens. Ostensibly, they embark on this mission because the barns have failed inspections, but there’s more to it than that. Unferth, of course, leaves this motivation unsaid, and convinces us that Janey’s and Cleveland’s impetus is decidedly unpolitical. The word removal is Cleveland’s, as she’s determined not to label their actions in the language of liberation or freedom. After all, these hens are now so domesticated that surviving outside the environments built to exterminate them is impossible.
The back cover describes Barn 8 as a “rare comic-political drama,” and while this characterization is not entirely incorrect, it overlooks the fact that the novel is less comic and more satiric and caustic. One would be forgiven for thinking that Unferth is hard on her characters. After all, she tells us that Cleveland “lived in the ugliest house Janey had ever seen, plastic sun shades over the windows, fake siding coming off in places. No kids, a pasty husband who was already balding.”
Unferth’s writing is spare but bears little resemblance to Hemingway. It delivers statements like “Anytime someone in this country calls you amigo, watch out,” and “The evil humans will be gone for good, and the chickens will never evolve hands, will never rise to such heights where mass destruction is possible. They’ll take only what they need.” At times, reading Barn 8 is like peering through haze: There’s a general understanding of what’s happening, and yet some of the finer details, like how they really manage to assemble 500 people to pull off the job, don’t quite emerge. Ultimately, that’s not as important to the story as is the necessity of removing the hens—the characters are compelled to do so, devoted to it, and don’t waste time thinking about optics.
Come for the egg puns—“the couple’s ideas, spreading across the egg farmers’ children like a broke yolk”—and stay for the religious language: “They filled their tanks, filed onto flights, boarded buses. They were on the move. It was biblical, mythological, fabled. They disappeared out of their spots like the rapture but there were so few of them and they were such loners, their absence was barely noticed.”
Unferth’s biting observations highlight the nebulous, difficult-to-describe yet easy-to-feel compulsion that permeates every page of the novel. All the participants and enablers of animal farming come together to remove the hens, horrific memories propelling them forward: “their experiences in the barns had strengthened their convictions. They spent twelve-hour days placing the baby-soft beaks of chicks into hot-iron guillotines, searing off the tips, while the chicks struggled and their faces smoked. Hens sweet little puffs. The solid adventure of saving them: Who didn’t want to be a part of it? Who wouldn’t? The time had come to say no more.”
The novel’s power lies not only in its bluntness—at both the sentence and plot levels—but also in its implication of the reader. Most of us eat eggs, and as Unferth points out, “now they are everywhere, emerging from the nation’s farms at an alarming rate, seventy-five billion per year.” In the face of this, we have become complacent, too. Activism, as she calls it, is “capitalism with a conscience.”
It’s her matter-of-factness that simultaneously heightens the discomforts of these addresses and legitimizes them. It’s obvious that she’s not speaking to the audience to prove that she’s smart or “socially aware” enough to do so, but because she feels a genuinely real concern. The simplicity of the question, “were they property or individuals?” is a testament to the urgency we must feel when confronted with the horrors hen endure to satisfy our endless needs.
It goes without saying, then, that Unferth makes a character out of one of the hens. Bwwaauk, as she’s called, forces us to remember that the narrative created to justify monolithic animal slaughter is based on lie denying the simplified consciousness of the creatures that feed us. Chickens once represented life and fertility, not their opposite.
The novel’s soaring success lies in the deft way that Unferth relies on simplification: You could try to argue with her facts, but it is very difficult to argue with a reality that she has researched, seen, and exposed. Sure, Barn 8 a work of fiction, yet it is based on truths ignored for convenience’s sake. The thought of “monocrops of damaged cows, pigs, dogs, hens” must be made witty. It’s impossible to look away from the fact that humans are the perpetuators of destruction, waste, and their endless repetition, but while we’re here, we may as well chuckle in our complicity.
Barn 8, by Deb Olin Unferth. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, March 2020. 256 pages. $16.00, paper.
Cassandra Luca is a junior at Harvard College studying English with minors in Italian and French. She is the Books Executive for the Arts board of The Harvard Crimson. Find more of her work here, and follow her on Twitter @cassandraluca_