Questioning the morality of normalized cannibalism in ‘Tender is the Flesh’

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by Shuyler Clark

In the near future, a new virus renders animal meat dangerous to consume. As animals are culled and humans become desperate for meat, they choose to farm and eat other humans instead. Marcos, suffering from the death of his child and his father’s deteriorating mental state, earns a living overseeing the human-farming process. When one of the farming plants gifts him a live female, Marcos comes to terms with his grief in this new society.

In the vein of similar speculative novels, Agustina Bazterrica’s dystopian Tender is the Flesh is mostly contemplative and character-driven, sacrificing plot to consider the moral and psychological ramifications of the speculative aspects. Despite the underlying idea of factory farming humans, Bazterrica dedicates much of the plot to Marcos’ interpersonal struggles with his estranged wife and insensitive sister. The arrival of the female further aggravates these conflicts, though they do not feel unique to the circumstances. For instance, Marcos’ grief over the death of his son and consequent disconnect from his wife could be compelling ideas, but they could easily exist in a contemporary setting without the human-farming aspect.

As a character, Marcos is sympathetic given the situation. He avoids human meat since he attributes the Transition (as the switch to cannibalism is called) to his father’s decline and has his own theories on why it has become mainstream. The novel’s slow pacing helps to develop his character, but it culminates in a rushed ending that leaves more questions than answers.

Given how Marcos’ conflicts are the novel’s main focus, this leaves the speculative facet underutilized. Readers are given the basics of this new cannibalistic society, including brief explanations for why more people did not become vegan or vegetarian in protest, what became of captive and domesticated animals, and what new habits people adopted around the virus narrative. However, not as much attention is paid to the worldwide response to the Transition. Since the Transition could be interchanged with other narrative ideas for Marcos’ conflicts and have similar impact, it leaves the human-farming disjointed from the rest of the story.

Although the novel’s premise can be interesting despite its flaws, the quality of the writing weighs it down. Despite the third-person narration, Marcos is rarely referred to by name, making some scenes with multiple male characters unclear. The prose itself is straightforward, with very little variety in sentence structure. While this could be a result of the translation from Spanish, the writing is often unengaging regardless.

As a novel, Tender is the Flesh offers an intriguing premise undermined by a lack of development. Readers who frequent the speculative genre may enjoy it for the opportunity to examine and build on the ideas presented.

Shuyler Clark is a graduate of Stockbridge High School and Lansing Community College. When she is not reading or writing, she can be found snuggling with her birds.

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