I’m sitting at my dining room table, listening to one of my housemates chronicle a past trauma. It was summertime. She and her mother received daily visits from a neighborhood cat, who they fed and cared for. One day, the cat arrived with three newborn kittens—dropping them in the yard before leaving again. My housemate waited throughout the night for her return, at one point moving the kittens into their unused doghouse to keep them warm. To her relief, the mother returned in the morning. She watched as the mother lifted a kitten by the scruff of its neck, presumably to take it to a new home. But then she noticed the mother was biting too hard.
“Mom,” she called to her own mother. “Something’s wrong.”
And then the cat ate her kitten. And then ate the other kittens too.
submitting to a YouTube rabbit hole researching for this article, I learned that cannibalism is more widespread in nature than we might have previously thought. Tadpoles, for instance, grow by eating their weaker siblings, ensuring the strongest of their species survives. On the other hand, female spiders often consume their smaller, male mates, fulfilling their nutritional needs prior to giving birth. Cannibalism also plays a layered role in human history, emerging as medicine in medieval times or in funerary rites throughout the 20th century. Suffice to say, the kittens’ deaths witnessed by my housemate were traumatizing but not rare—gesturing to the untold prevalence of cannibalistic practices in our world.
I’d like to discuss two literary works entailing cannibalism: Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, and Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis—recently adapted into a film by Luca Guadagnino starring Taylor Russell and Timothee Chalamet. To answer your first question: yes, Bazterrica is vegetarian and DeAngelis is vegan. However, their novels couldn’t be more different. Tender is the Flesh inhabits a dystopian world in which a deadly virus (to answer your second question: the novel was published in pre-pandemic 2017) renders all animal meat inedible, leading to the consumption of humans—dubbed “Special Meat”—as an alternative. (To answer your third question: vegetarians and vegans still exist—only they’re considered cults now.) Specifically, the novel follows Marcos, an employee of a “Special Meat” factory farm, as the recent loss of his childhood forces him to question the ideological foundations of his world.
In contrast, Bones & All depicts a budding romance between two young adults: Maren and Lee, as they search for Maren’s estranged father. Although most readers assume them to be cannibals who are confined by physiological laws, In later interviews, DeAngelis explains that they’re more accurately described as ghouls: beings who consume their victims “bones and all.” Here, DeAngelis adds an interesting twist; where Maren only eats people who initiate intimate interactions with her, Lee only eats people who commit violent acts against others. Like Tender is the Flesh, Bones & All makes clear space for social commentary. However, their similarities end there.
The first glaring difference between the two novels arrives in their language. Throughout the book, Maren eats a number of people; however, DeAngelis denies readers details from the actual moments of consumption:
“She must have hummed a lullaby, fondled each tiny finger and toe, kissed my cheeks and stroked down the hair on my head, blowing on my hair like she was making a wish on a dandelion gone to seed. I had my teeth but I was too small to swallow the bones, so when my mother came home she found them in a pile on the living room carpet.”
Here, DeAngelis describes the moments leading up to and the moments directly following Maren eating her first victim, but leaves a gaping hole during the actual moment of consumption. This omission holds true throughout the rest of the book, and requires a level of suspension of disbelief from the reader. Especially when Maren consumes larger, supposedly stronger men, it’s easy to question how she overpowers them if/when they struggle. In denying the reader answers to such questions, DeAngelis likens Maren’s cannibalism to everyday acts worth glossing over, such as getting dressed or using the bathroom. As a reader but also as an individual who instinctively rejects cannibalism (as, I hope, you also do), this motion leaves me confused; why would DeAngelis downplay the severity of Maren’s actions? In interviews shortly following the novel’s publication, DeAngelis, a certified vegan lifestyle coach and educator, openly admits to Bones & All being a critique of our flesh-eating society. From this lens, the detached style through which DeAngelis writes Maren’s actions might point to our unquestioning attitude toward meat-based diets. Only when we change our habits does eating become a conscious act—allowing us to view meat-based diets through the lens of its ethical and environmental consequences.
Interestingly, however, DeAngelis has also expressed a notable shift in perspective regarding the novel. In a recent interview with Our Hen House to publicize the film’s release, DeAngelis acknowledges how she wrote Bones & All over a decade ago, observing, “I’m not that person anymore. You know, I can do better now. And so it’s ancient history for me, creatively speaking.” In the interview, she denies any extraneous social commentaries lurking within the text—deeming feminist or sexual readings as unintentional.
In stark contrast, the brutal language and unflinching moral directive of Tender is the Flesh emerges as its most defining feature. The novel opens with the following passage:
“Carcass. Cut in half. Stunner. Slaughter line. Spray wash. These words appear in his head and strike him. Destroy him. But they’re not just words. They’re the blood, the dense smell, the automation, the absence of thought. They burst in on the night, catch him off guard. When he wakes, his body is covered in a film of sweat because he knows that what awaits is another day of slaughtering humans.”
Reading these lines, it’s hard to believe they describe a dream sequence. The chopped alliteration of the first sentences combined with the sensory overload of “strike,” “destroy,” “blood,” and “dense smell” rejects readers’ notions of a slurred, euphoric dreamscape. Yet here, Marcos’s work at a “Special Meat” factory farm bleeds from reality into his dreams, and back from dreams into his reality as he awakens. Unlike DeAngelis, Bazterrica fully immerses readers in the brutality of her world, quite physically “striking” us over the head with her critique on factory farming. Therefore, where the distant language of Bones & All challenges our desensitization from the consequences of our diet, Tender is the Flesh ensures we face those realities head on. Additionally, Bazterrica powerfully condemns our indifference to ongoing tragedies. In an article for The Irish Times, she writes:
“I have always believed that in our capitalist, consumerist society, we devour each other … One clear example: when we allow a 12-year-old girl to work as a prostitute, it shows that there is a part of society that is indifferent, uninterested in that situation, and that another huge part validates it because it benefits them and in the middle of all that there is this little girl being consumed by everyone.”
Tender is the Flesh reflects this sentiment through its characters: Marisa, Marcos’s obnoxious sister who satirizes society’s obsession with status and appearance, El Gringo, the owner of the factory farm in which Marcos works who draws a clear comparison to society’s wealthy 1%, and, of course, Marcos himself, whose position at the factory farm pays his dying father’s medical bills. As a narrator, Marcos reads similarly to classic characters such as John from Brave New World or Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451, resisting his society’s corruption enough for readers to sympathize but not empathize with him. However, Bazterrica’s critique of capitalism reaches its peak through Jasmine: the human gifted to Marcos by El Gringo. While I can’t say much without spoiling the book, I will say Jasmine’s arc is the most disturbing, and the one we, as participants of a desensitized, capitalist society, can excuse ourselves from the least. Because Tender is the Flesh acknowledges the irony of our moral high ground; we like to think that we wouldn’t conform to a cannibalistic society, but who can say for sure? More importantly, what if we already are?
In terms of reading Tender is the Flesh and Bones & All alongside each other, I have little wisdom to offer. The videos explaining cannibalism’s role in the animal kingdom, as well as the scene my housemate witnessed that fateful summer day, point to cannibalism being a natural practice—one that propels the survival of a species. Yet the popularity of the two novels, despite their stark contrast in plot and tone, point to our simultaneous fear and fascination of cannibalism. In using an instinctively savage trope to highlight our darkest practices, DeAngelis and Bazterrica raise an alarming question: how can something so inhumane also be so human? Again, I don’t have a coherent response to this question. It’s just something to chew on.