STATS: BOOK / MATTHEW STOKOE / 190pp. / 1998 (Reissued in 2011 as part of Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery Series)
Is this the most disgusting book ever written? I’ve heard that Stokoe’s follow-up High Life actually pushes it even farther, but I’ll have to regroup a little, read it, and report back. For now, Cows has done the worst a book I’ve ever read has ever done to my stomach.
McCarthy and Evenson maybe sometimes approach a comparable level of physical brutality, but they work in a more primordial or post-apocalyptic vein, so their books feel allegorical or mythic, further removed from the rank here and now. Stokoe, on the way other hand, digs deep into shitty lower class British life in the 90’s and couches his unrelenting parade of torture, bestiality, and all-around fuckedupedness in this real society’s bowels, with the colon and anus the only remote hope for release. And no one gets into the sex and bile stuff like Stokoe — there’s no clean desert air here, no archetypes, “examinations,” or operatic finales.
I think the standard form for a positive review of a book this ferocious is to say “it’s moving and complex despite its brutality” but that’s bullshit. The brutality of Stokoe’s book is front and center and you’d never read it if you weren’t up for that (or didn’t think you were). It’s moving and complex because of this brutality. Cows renders the unimaginable unavoidable on the page — more than anything I’ve ever come across, it succeeds in putting images in my head that weren’t there before. I hope I never become someone who isn’t always grateful for that.
The run-down: a hapless 25-year-old named Steven lives in a lousy apartment with his mother, The Hagbeast. He gets a job at a slaughterhouse, where he is inducted into all manner of cow-torture and cow-fucking, as well as, more broadly and deeply, the addictive release of murder and cruelty, of radical selfishness in all its forms. Under the tutelage of Cripps, one of the freakiest and least forgettable id-balls I’ve ever come across, Steven learns the reality of men in the world, or at least the reality of Cripps in the world, the ways in which murder can “force happiness into being” … until the wrong person warms up the electric flensing knife.
He kills his mother, marries the self-mutilating girl upstairs, gets her pregnant, dreams of a TV suburban idyll … then, buckets and buckets of shit, semen, blood, vomit, glit, and general world-filth later, we find him leading a pack of “urban cows” (grown “in concrete boxes under ultra violet light” and fed on “pellets of their own dead”) on a justified crusade against all mankind.
I love that Stokoe said this: “So I have this guy and then he goes off and gets a job at the slaughterhouse and he’s sitting at his station there and then I think … he hears a Cow speak to him through a ventilation grate. And I think are you fucking serious? A talking Cow? And then I think, fuck, no, that’s good. Then I worry about how to explain the Cow’s ability to speak, and then I think fuck it, the Cow speaks because he speaks, get on with the book.”
More and more, I find the fiction I care about is all what and no why.
Anyway, I was standing in the Springfield, MA bus station a few days ago, reading parts of this book while the TV blared some true crime breaking news story about a girl who’d supposedly murdered her LDS boyfriend in Arizona. I found the report incredibly obnoxious and the book incredibly engaging, though the surface-level irony of trying to escape from one into the other wasn’t lost on me. The thing that became clear, as the smug newscaster went on and on about how the guy’s body was found with twenty-nine stab wounds, neck lacerations, blah blah blah, decomposing on his shower floor, was the hypocrisy of such a report’s intent: it’s talking to an audience that wants to be scandalized from afar and then, ideally, fry whomever it decides to blame. It’s a bath in prurience where the audience gets to maintain its moral high ground, soaking in all the awful shit done to this dead guy (and covertly loving it) while, overtly, slavering for justice, safety, outrage at evil.
Not so in Stokoe. If you go there with him, you’re there. There’s no out and there’s no quarter. If you succeed in reading this book, you’ll end up sympathizing with at least some of what goes on. There’s no good/evil breakdown and no phantasmagoria — Steven may be insane (though I don’t think so, he just wants the same basic, withheld Western happiness that everyone thinks they want), but the prose stays stark and clear, documentary-emphatic, neither reveling nor melting into the kind of livid fever dream that would make all of what goes on more liquid and thus swallowable without chewing. That’s baby food, not Cows.
PARTIAL LIST OF ATROCITIES COMMITTED:
* Long, immaculately detailed scenes of Steven (who believes his mother is trying to poison him), turning the tables by forcing her to eat his shit on a plate … the compromise being that he has to eat it too. Without having tried it myself, I cannot imagine a more realistic suite of descriptions.
* After work at the slaughterhouse, a bunch of guys cut holes into the flanks of a living cow with a serrated “instrument like an apple corer” and fuck the wounds while another guy puts his lips up to its asshole then jabs it with a cattle prod, rocketing across the room in “a blast of shit, vomiting in rapture.”
* Under Cripps’ tutelage, so as to enter a “world of men that does not play home to fear,” Steven takes up a pair of secateurs and slices a man (who’s already had his lips bitten away by a cow he was kissing) from rectum, all the way up his spine, to the base of his skull, vomiting into the opened body. “You have done what only a very few dare try,” he is gratified to learn.
* Giving up on poisoning as too slow, Steven crushes his mother’s teeth with a plier, stuffs her nose with toilet paper, then industrial-adhesive-tapes her bloody mouth to his asshole and takes a death-causing shit down her throat, reaching “round to hold on to her head until she went limp.”
* After braining and decapitating a cow, Steven obligingly holds out the two brain sections in a sandwich for Cripps to fuck.
* Steven’s pregnant wife Lucy, obsessed with invisible inner decay, cuts herself open from anus to belly in a homemade abortion / suicide.
* Steven nails the dead fetus to the wall with kitchen knives, then shoves the not-bird-eaten remainders of a dead dog partially inside Lucy’s womb, creating a kind of hybrid corpse tableau.
COMPARE THIS TO Saw, Hostel … I have no moral vendetta against that kind of multiplex torture porn, but I’m not interested in it. Part of it is that I’m a style snob — I’ll read at least some of almost anything well-written and basically none of anything not; I’ll watch anything by Haneke but max. 5 minutes of Eli Roth — but I don’t think that’s all that makes Cows something I’m glad exists and am glad to have read while Human Centipede remains, for me, worth well less than the time it took to watch.
A big part of it is the eroticization that Stokoe brings to the surface — in torture porn movies, the violence is maybe supposed to be erotic but that’s a secret the movie is too self-protective to admit … all it claims to want to do is tell a jacked-up version of the usual story of hapless, blameless good guys falling into the clutches of weapon-wielding bad guys. Maybe the good guys have to hurt themselves in order to survive, but they’re still good guys. They don’t get off on it.
In Cows, everyone gets off on everything, not that it makes them happy. A lot of the cow sodomy, amazingly (a credit to Stokoe’s writing) is downright sexy. In the end this is a book about the ways in which the mind’s lowest-down urges mete themselves out on the body, human and animal alike, starting at the surface and working through skin, tissue, and down to bone.
In this as in all things, if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing right.
“All your fuck-ups and sadnesses and fears drop down like some sort of brainshit into your guts and build up there.”
“We all have it, that dark core. It makes us men. And if we examine it, if we can bear to hold it up to ourselves and acknowledge it as our own, then it makes us more than men. The slaughter room is where we become complete, boy.”