Jen Rawlinson Reviews Aaron Schneider's Grass-Fed
Toward the end of Aaron Schneider’s debut work of fiction, one character sits at a dinner table with nine other people struggling to eat his meal as everyone else avoids making eye contact with him. “Horror must be performed to be meaningful,” he will say, once he leaves the BlackRock resort, but in this moment he fights to hide his revulsion from the other guests.
Described as a literary horror, Grass-fed introduces the reader to nine individuals, four married couples and one single man, arriving at BlackRock, a hunting and fishing resort somewhere in the wilderness near Timmins, Ontario. The group is led by Alexander Williams, a food writer, critic, and curator of authentic food-themed excursions. It doesn’t take a Master’s Degree in English to figure out that “literary horror” plus “authentic food-themed excursions” is going to end very, very badly. But the road to cannibalism must be carefully trodden so, much like the charismatic Alexander, the author mindfully plots toward the story’s climax, weaving in a degree of normality, focusing on actions and expressions instead of emotions to draw the reader into a neutral place so that everyone is complacent with what comes next, no matter how gruesome.
A slim volume of 160 pages, Grass-fed is not quite robust enough to delve deeply into the nearly a dozen protagonists’ characters in natural and subtle ways. The chapters are short, and many of them are dedicated solely to a single character’s backstory: their justification for the life they have led, and their motivation for being at BlackRock. It would be tempting to think of these chapters as shallow point-A-to-point-B retellings of a character’s personal history except for the way in which Schneider tells them. Scenes when the guests have retired for the evening and are spending time in their own rooms are written as performances: stage plays, poetry readings, a duet with solos, even opening pages that pretend at being a brochure. These sections remind the reader that everyone is performing their selves. Even private moments between couples are constructed as two separate internal monologues, delineating one person from the other. This structure is absent from chapters where the group is gathered together, but the implication of performance remains.
Highlighting the degree of performance this way brilliantly contrasts each character’s goal for being at BlackRock: to experience authenticity. The resort itself is dedicated to the performance of authenticity while sanitizing true experience. BlackRock’s “privately owned wilderness” provides fully stocked and heated hunting blinds close to hiking trails so that guests looking to feel “the loose, decisive weight of death,” need never be uncomfortable. The characters themselves ruminate nightly on their lives, teaching themselves by rote that they are entitled to be there and that their entitlement is authentic.
This entitlement is something Alexander harnesses for his own shocking purposes. He grooms his guests, inflating their sense of privilege through a series of escalating live-animal butcherings, some of which guests have paid extra to be part of. After each butchering, the resort staff clean and cook the animal, and the guests sit down to the freshest and most authentic meal of their lives. And the guests are determined to enjoy their “slow food” and “free-range” and “small-scale” and “tradition” and “pace of life” and “harmony” and “husbandry” and “mother earth” and “animal welfare” meals, even if they have to swallow it down past hard lumps in their throats.
Grass-fed provides a searing look at the contradictions that we hold inside us, the ones that allow us to go about our daily lives pretending the violence of our existences is justified, and the ways in which that willful ignorance can be weaponized. It’s a book that is sure to complicate your next trip to the supermarket.
Jennifer Rawlinson works as the Editorial Assistant at Wolsak and Wynn Publishers, Festival Assistant with gritLIT: Hamilton’s Readers’ and Writers’ Festival, and freelances as a proofreader and copy editor. She lives in Hamilton, ON.