The chicken-related writing, however, is a force unto itself. If you thought you didn’t care about chickens, Unferth is here to prove you wrong. Throughout, she makes us feel them as minds, as with the rescued hen who stubbornly insists on sitting on her egg, “because she’d never been able to sit on her eggs before and she wasn’t going to get up for anything … she was such an intelligent, unintelligent little birdie, thinking her job was to sit there, stay no matter what.” The meticulous, science-fictional descriptions of the alien atmosphere of factory farming are also astonishing. The thousands of tiered cages, miles of feed troughs, constant rains of dirt and faeces and hosts of cramped, debeaked birds – Unferth makes us see the barns as being the unfathomable horror that they are.
Somewhere between two novellas and a novel, Olin Unferth’s sixth book is part-Bildungsroman, part-heist, part-history of industrial husbandry. Non-chronological and ornithological, it leaps forwards to a charred and toxic future when chickens have outlived mankind, and back to the first fowls who shared the planet with dinosaurs. Standalone asides offer glimpses of agricultural capitalism from all angles. A nightwatchman’s diary recounts the years he spent guarding an empty, burnt-down barn. He is still on his ‘”temp contract” when the arsonist responsible leaves prison. Differences between what turtles and chickens expect from the afterlife are contemplated. An introduction to hen language – surprisingly sophisticated – is provided.
Part of what makes it so much fun is Unferth’s relentlessly playful manipulation of the material. Turning the story round to present new angles, zooming in and out, she makes the vogue for plain present-tense narration seem austere by comparison. While she’s often very funny, she sidesteps the obvious pitfall of caricaturing the ideologues she’s writing about, even as she lets us laugh. Airing their emotional hangups, Unferth suggests they have complex motives without minimising the force of their beliefs. Nor does the novel proselytise –although it’s enough of an eye-opener to give you pause next time you make an omelette.
The subtle moralising in Barn 8 may not be enough to make you push away your fried eggs and rebrand yourself a noble vegan. You will, however, slot this neat novel onto your bookshelf with a newfound respect for and affinity with the mighty hen.
Victim to this impressive chorus is tension. Barn 8 is a story about the beauty of life taking an unexpected turn, and about how, in caring for an animal, we can improve our own lot. But the heist? Not as interesting as what goes on inside the head of a young activist — or a chicken, as it turns out.