Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: Cows by Matthew Stokoe

This book stinks.

I don't mean that in a disparaging way. You can smell this book. It's an unpleasant mixture of rot, shit and blood. You can feel the slimy viscera as you turn the pages. It stains your hands.

The story of Cows revolves around Steven. A man who has lived under the reign of terror of his abusive mother, who he rightly refers to as the Hagbeast. He pines for the woman who lives upstairs, he bears the mental and physical abuse the Hagbeast heaps upon him and he begins doing grunt work at a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of the city. At the job he meets Cripps, the profoundly disturbed foreman. However, Cripps turns out to be the catalyst Steven needs to rid himself of the Hagbeast and start a normal life. A normal, happy life like the families on TV.

There is a lot going on in this 180+ page book. Its story is bizarre and nightmarish. It deals with themes of alienation, 'release', the oppressed becoming oppressors and the effects of media on the everyday life. As previously stated, this is not a pleasant read. Cows is relentless in its violence and perversion. The only book I can think to compare it to is Hubert Selby Jr's The Room. It's no surprise that Stokoe names Selby as a major influence. Like Selby, Stokoe creates very human characters. Even as they engage is behavior that should be unbelievable and unlikable, their hellish circumstances make them feel sympathetic and their reactions understandable. 

At times, the novel seems uneven in its tone. The book reads as the darkest of dark comedy, but some of the funny moments feel they were unintentional. Attempts at shock that just ended up being too silly. However, this is a case of stumbling without ever falling. Stokoe is a skilled enough writer, that he absorbed me into moments and plot turns that, if described by me, would seem absolutely ridiculous. Ridiculous in ways that would take one out of the story, that is. The moments are still ridiculous in an 'absurdist' way.

This is a harrowing read. However, if you like strange stories and are looking for a read that challenges the mind and the stomach, I highly recommend this. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Stokoe's work.

Buy Cows by Matthew Stokoe here.


Anita said...

It is interesting that you mention Hubert Selby because I found Stokoe's work disgusting in a very visceral way (and not just the nasty scenes). Selby was nasty to me as well. Just foul and kind of grubby? Does that make sense? You speak of smell and I didn't smell a stink but rather felt a grime that was common between both writers. But I didn't connect the feeling until you invoked Selby.

My copy is an old Creation Books copy. Poor Stokoe was one of the writers who got fucked over by Creation Books and it was very cool to see that he finally got his work wrenched away and back under his own control and released under a better and honest imprint. Now that he's not being screwed over and dealing with the attendant nonsense that comes with it, he can concentrate on progressing as a writer because while I noted the unevenness that you mention, to convey such a sense of persistent grime and stench is an interesting talent.

Ben Arzate said...

It is very unfortunate how Creation Books has gone. They have a pretty big and very interesting catalog, almost all of which seems to be out of print. Hopefully more of those books will find new homes, they seem worthy of attention. I've heard a lot of good things of Stokoe's "High Life" and I'm looking forward to reading that.

I can see how you connected the grimy feeling both Stokoe and Selby evoke. Though I think "Cows" and the "The Room" share a central theme as well. Both are about completely powerless individuals going to grotesque extremes to liberate themselves. Though in "The Room" the extremes take place in the protagonist's imagination whereas "Cows" has Steven forcing himself to physical extremes.

Unknown said...

Coming pretty late to this review, but I saw the link while reading your post about Sotos and was intrigued, having read Cows a few months ago. I knew of it by reputation, but until recently there weren't any copies around that I could afford. The descriptions I read made it sound like straightforward extreme horror, so I was surprised by how surreal it was. What I thought would just be a conventional horror story turned out to actually be existential horror, a meditation on power/powerlessness and loneliness. So that's good.

I can see why people consider this one of the most revolting novels ever written, but the nauseating imagery is so over the top and literally cover to cover, that it eventually becomes more funny than horrifying. Which, like you, I felt was both intentional and not. Everything from the dialogue to the characters and storyline is just too absurdly artificial to take seriously, so I really wonder what Stokoe was going for here. Ultra-black comedy? Maybe. It's too funny to be serious, but it's also too serious to be funny.

It's competently written and kept my interest throughout, but I just don't know. I think it would have worked better for me as a short story or short prose poem. I'm no enemy of surreal fiction, but Cows feels too heavy-handed to me. Beneath the outrageous imagery, is it saying anything about the human condition that we haven't already seen thousands of times? Not that it has to, but it also doesn't give me characters who seem remotely recognizable as actual human beings (not to mention cows), so there's very little here to engage me. I didn't find it terrible, but aside from some memorable gross-out scenes -- like the Hagbeast and the genuinely nauseating stuff with his girlfriend -- and the very cool imagery of the murderous rampaging cows, I found it less affecting than I'd hoped.

Still -- definitely a talented writer. I have his novel High Life somewhere, and look forward to reading it.

Ben Arzate said...

I can see how Cows could be too "out there" to actually relate to it. I'd originally heard it called a Bizarro book, so I went in kind of expecting that. High Life and Empty Mile are supposed to be more noir-ish, so I am interested in seeing the direction he's gone in.