Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews

A Carnivore's Inquiry

Sabina Murray
Grove Press (2004) 294 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

Katherine Shea, our first-person narrator, is a twenty-two year old alcoholic and beautiful nymphomaniac who communicates in sarcastic repartee while whimsically traveling the nation from New York City to Maine to the Southwest and to Mexico, killing and eating men with whom she's presumably also had sex. She's a college dropout from a wealthy New England family, and fixates often, in between drunken blackouts (every five or so pages) and migraine headaches (every seven, but she doesn't see doctors) on her mentally ill mother and her childhood. While it's never clearly established where Katherine gets the means to do all this (perhaps she steals it from her "victims"), the author does spend a little time (perhaps at the urging of her editor) explaining through Katherine how a twenty-two year old alcoholic dropout knows so much about the History of Cannibalism in nineteenth-century Australia. Oh, and Katherine gets away with everything.

This is what one of the most publicized novels of the summer is about—or rather, what takes place in it. If it seems to have "straight to video" written all over it (the hundred-word "pitch" above), well, Sabina Murray is also a screenwriter, her dustcover bio tells us. And if it weren't in utterly poor taste, I'd look up to see who optioned the screen rights on this book, and for how much—because I'm afraid sales of the novel aren't going to amount to much once the spin wears off and it goes into paperback. I'm trying to be professional. I'm clinching my teeth. But that movie, hasn't it been done a few times before? Or this book, even?

Ah, but this is a "twist." Picture, say, some young Julia Ormond chick or the woman who plays Brenda on Six Feet Under as Katherine. And the book has a niche this year, too (I know Grove likes the Fringe Aesthetic, but still, what are they thinking?). Chick Lit for thirty-year olds, perhaps. For all those people finally disconcerted with the consumerist banalities of their Sex and the City DVD sets. And it'll have a cult following in places like Boston and the Upper East Side and San Francisco (well, parts of it). Portland. Seattle. They'll take it as campy irony, because they're never insulted directly. See, the publisher (or Sabina Murray, or whoever wrote the book cover) tells us that "This is a novel of ideas..." The main one being (I guess), as Sabina (I mean Katherine) tells us at the end, that aren't we all cannibals? We Americans, we Europeans, we humans, whatever?

—Haven't we readers heard this "idea," uh, somewhere... before?!

And far from attacking this novel idea with the gusto of a Rabelais or the satire of a Swift or the obscene parody of a Henry Miller, the implications of a beautiful woman killing men she's involved with and consuming them... oh, I won't even take it there. The whole idea is just too tired; it doesn't merit that much work. It implies that Katherine is a spoiled, selfish, rich pseudo-intellectual—smug, pretentious, and insufferably boring.

There. And were it not a point of honor for me to actually read all of the books I review, I could never have finished this one. And, because it's so repetitive (Drinks. Kills. Moves On. Tells childhood episode. Recounts story from art or literature about cannibalism. Drinks. Kills. Moves...) it took a solid week. But this book does merit a full and thoughtful review, one with a couple of ideas. They're just not the ones Sabina intended for us.

The most unfortunate thing about A Carnivore's Inquiry is that Sabina Murray is not at all a bad writer. This is maddening: her plotting is weak and her ideas... are not ideas, but she's possessed of a polished talent that is capable of passages far beyond those of the stock M.F.A. technique that often tries to pass for talent... or the talent without technique. Yet this plus, in and of itself, creates problems here, in a novel that is almost that rare beast I have seldom actually seen, a total failure. But I'll start with this: we're not into New Criticism or whatever anymore, the formalism that insists that the first-person narrator is a "speaker," some third-party character the Author cooked up from the furrows of her fertile imagination. The big two antidotes to this are psychological criticism and no-author post-structuralism, but I'm not going for those, either... at least not all the way. But these three extremes form very useful points of reference on a triangle.

So, Katherine Shea is no more really Sabina Murray than J.D. Salinger really was that adolescent he used to narrate that book he wrote that time. Or at least I hope she's not Katherine, as otherwise the world has lost a lot of perfectly good alcoholic beverages that could have otherwise been Enjoyed Responsibly. And psychologically, I also don't think that because she wrote this book, Sabina Murray of Amherst, Massachusetts hates all men or something (well, I can think of perhaps one that she hates now, though it can't be helped).

But from the very beginning of the novel, one can just not accept Katherine. She's not a believable character, at all. She's about thirty-two, not twenty-two, and thirty-two with a degree or two. Her early observations over dinner about Goya, for example: "I think Goya drew his creatures in a moment of madness that frightened him, that his ability to draw such ugly creatures disturbed him. I think he felt possessed by his art... Goya tries to make sense out of this accidental creation, this product of his madness..."

That's just from page 29. In between drunken murder feasts, Katherine focuses on an artist (Gèricault, whose "Raft of the Medusa" graces the cover above a woman in a suggestive aspect) or an author (Marie de France, and—you guessed it—Melville, Poe) and especially history (The Donner Party, pre-Columbian cultures, The Franklin Expedition)... on and on, as if this had suddenly become another book. Katherine presumably learned all this as a very small child from her crazy mother and remembered it. These reminiscences are almost randomly inserted to break up the "narrative": they take up half the book (no kidding).

It's like a bad, self-indulgent graduate seminar (well, undergraduate), and Sabina thanks the authors and books she paraphrases from in the Acknowledgements. But Katherine talks this way in the company of others, too, professional artists and writers who, strangely, don't understand a word of it. Sure, a lot of the details are wrong, but I don't think that's intended. Yet the protagonist comes across not as witty and misunderstood, but monumentally boring, pedantic, insecure and so self-absorbed it subsumes her characterization.

The other characters are one-dimensional, as they exist solely to be killed and eaten, and by the second third of the novel, when the reader sees pretty clearly what the aforementioned pattern will be, the book becomes a tedious, farcical joke, and one with no punch line. Further, there are few or no character motivations or developments, the narrative gapes with unanswered questions, and the possibility of any kind of summary resolution for any of this is simply tossed out as the book ends so tepidly you're sorry you wasted your time—and don't even waste the energy to groan when assaulted with pitiful, obvious word imagery "...to attain the success he had hungered for..." etc., etc. Katherine drives away in her rich dad's SUV, having learned nothing and changed not at all. She's just killed the last of her boyfriends... okay, is this all a metaphor for fear of intimacy or something?

Well, maybe, and just as Katherine is afraid to lose herself with another person, her author seems every bit as intent on sabotaging her own success with the reader. This is the most overtly self-destructive novel I've read in many moons, so maybe it cannibalizes... itself.

Like that grad-school pseudo-intellectual crap? I don't, but you've gathered that, and I hasten to add that this cut-and-paste hack job (lol) needed a good editor (and a copy editor).

Sabina Murray quite probably needs to decide just which book she wants to write, and work at it. I'd pass the present volume as a M.F.A. thesis, after multiple revisions, but is it a novel of "ideas," or of substance? No. Is it an obsessive and long-winded flop? Yes. I'm fair, but I'm not going to say it's swell when it isn't.

Disagree? Hey, it's your money ($23), but I did just try to save you the trouble.


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