“Our hearts are only two pounds, not much room for love.”
Matthew Stokoe’s debut novel Cows is probably the most depraved book I’ve ever read.
In many ways, it is like Pasolini’s Saló, but whereas the depravity of the Italian movie is more stylistic, in these pages we can almost smell the excrement.
Steven works sporadically in a slaughterhouse, and his mother (only referred to as The Hagbeast) is an overbearing figure in his life. She abuses him physically and mentally, abuses the family dog (only called Dog in the book, and if you are squeamish about violence against animals you can skip this book entirely) and is almost cartoonish in her malignancy.
Every character in this book, including Steven’s upstairs neighbor Lucy and the coworkers (dare I say COW-ORKERS…sorry about that) is an awful human being. The more symbolically-inclined could say this book is an allegory for Hell.
I don’t think so.
I think that Matthew Stokoe is a good writer and has created a piece of truly transgressive art. The way he describes the gross, perverted acts carried out by every single character here is entertaining to the point of making this an enjoyable read, even though the subject matter is deplorable. He really has a way with words.
The book lags a bit on its final third, though. I think the plot gets a little sluggish, but nothing to make you want to put it down. (I mean, if the descriptions of coprophagia and bestiality don’t put you off it, a bit of bad pacing won’t).
There is a very Russian atmosphere to this book. The main character is a lonely loser, the world is an awful place, everyone is horrible, etc. It is like Crime and Punishment but with shit eating. There is also quite a bit of rape.
Online we can find many reviews calling this book “gross just for its own sake,” stuff that almost everyone of us who enjoy transgressive and weird art have encountered. But the grossness has a real value here. It keeps us glued to the pages, makes us want to know how it all will end for Steven and the gang. We get invested in the depravity, and we get that investment back with interests.
The ending actually surprised me. I won’t spoil it here, but I’ll just say that this is not the first “awful people doing awful stuff” book, and the ending to those usually keeps a certain pattern. Cows breaks this pattern, which was a welcome surprise.
The depiction of mental illness in this book is shaky to say the least. It’s usually accompanied by misguided attempts by at least one character to excise the illness from within, like the sickness was nothing more than something clogging our gears. It’s really on the nose and not subtle, but it’s so well executed by the author that it works.
I would not call this book a masterpiece by any stretch, but Cows is a great character study, even if the characters are all depraved, disturbed people. It’s definitely worth the read.
Pedro Proença is a composer, bassist and writer from Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. He lives with his wife, their cat and their dog. You can find him (mostly shirtless) on www.youtube.com/punksterbass