Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

<em class="BookTitle">Fast Food Nation</em>, Eric Schlosser

Harper Perennial, 2002 updated re-edition of a 2001 original, 383 pages, C$22.95 tp, ISBN 0-06-093845-5

Almost ten years after its publication, it’s not a stretch to call Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction exposé Fast Food Nation a budding classic.  It’s been influential enough to spawn one direct film adaptation (as an ensemble drama, no less) and inspire a documentary picture (Food, Inc), while becoming a primary inspiration for a basket of food-related non-fiction such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super-Size Me and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  The 1,462 reviews on so far hint at the influence it had on readers during its decade-long history.  Best of all; it’s still a terrific read in 2010.

It’s not as if his basic thesis is controversial: Fast-food (ie; food you order at a counter and get almost immediately) is a uniquely American creation, and its continued existence hints at a number of profound second-order effects.  Born in the socio-economic context of 1950s Southern California, its growth as an industry has changed the way America feeds itself.  That much is unarguable, but as Schlosser set out to examine American through the prism of fast-food, the less savoury aspects of the fast food industry quickly emerge.

It starts with the food, obviously: Chemically manipulated to a point where basic taste and smell can be manipulated at will, fast food is laden with salt, sugar and fat designed to fill you up and make you ask for more.  The resemblance with traditional food is more a matter of habit than substance.  Thankfully, Schlosser doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with the health impact of the industry: the point having been made elsewhere, he feels free to talk about the second-order effects of the rapid-restaurant agri-cultural complex: The regression of the meat-packing industry to appalling standards that would make even Upton Sinclair blanch; the transformation of agriculture into a corporate cartel (a subject that has since been explored in greater detail by a variety of sources), the transformation of food in neatly marketable categories… if you thought fast food was bad for your health, just wait until you realize the impact of the industries that had to be built in order to make that cheap burger possible.

Once we’re sliding down the greased rabbit hole of the fast food underbelly, through, it’s hard to stop.  What about the voluntary servitude asked of the largely teenage employees employed at fast food restaurants?  What about the far less optional servitude of illegal immigrants employed in the meat-packing factories?  What about the lower food safety standards that result from a system concerned with profits and speed?  Fast food is not just a way for people to buy food, it’s a system that, domino-like, affects everything it touches.  The idea that one can explore a culture through what it eats has seldom been as troubling.

In delivering this work of investigative journalism, Schlosser depends on a wide variety of historical sources, personal interviews, documented statistics and verifiable press clippings.  One of the book’s smartest decisions is to ground its subject in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and examine the facets of the fast food community through a community small enough to be understood.  This microcosm becomes a way to grasp an issue that would otherwise be too overwhelming to contemplate.

Circa 2010, Fast Food Nation continues to show the way.  There is now a lot more material available to those who would like to learn more about the modern food industry, and others have picked up the threads identified by Schlosser.  There’s a reason why it’s still selling briskly: But even today, the book is still a fun, engaging, noxiously informative read… even as most of its points are now common sense.

[March 2010: As an experiment in investigative criticism, I actually went out of my way to go get lunch at McDonald’s shortly after finishing the book.  I was reminded within moments of stepping into the lunchtime rush of the restaurant why it had been years since my last Big Mac.  I’d like to say that the food was horrible, but it was… fine.  I did have some trouble at the office due to the smell of the meal, however: plans to stealthily eat at my workstation as usual were foiled by the unmistakable aroma of the combo I had ordered, and I had to retreat to the lunch room where I got a few surprised comments about what I was eating.  All in all, not an experience I’m bound to repeat soon.]

The Strain, Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

<em class="BookTitle">The Strain</em>, Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

Morrow, 2009, 401 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-155823-8

Any review of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain can start from an embarrassing number of attention-grabbing hooks: The celebrity stunt-writing aspect; the resurgence of the evil-vampire breed; the post-9/11 New York setting; the first-book-in-a-trilogy angle.  They all compete for attention, obscuring the fact that the book reads like an average middle-of-the-road horror novel with techno-thriller overtones.

It would be easy to focus exclusively on Guillermo del Toro, who’s one of the finest genre horror director currently working.  Few others combine his rich fantastical imagination, his writing abilities and his strong visual abilities.  But his obvious influence on The Strain seems limited to two things.  First: how the vampires have a striking similarity to the ones in del Toro’s own Blade 2.  Second, how his name alone seems to have added 5$ to the book’s cover price for a shoddily-made hardcover.  Otherwise, one would assume that the book has been written in more or less the same way as other celebrity collaborations: Ideas and concepts from the celebrity, actual writing from the below-the-line writer.

The resurgence of the evil vampire as an antagonist is only noteworthy thanks to a blip in popular culture that, from Lestat de Lioncourt to Edward Cullen while passing through a good chunk of the paranormal romance genre, has momentarily de-fanged the vampire in quasi-genre literature.  One notes, however, that most of this vampiric denaturation has occurred at the borders of the genre, and not too often within horror itself: The “return of the evil vampire” was never needed for core horror fans.  Still, del Toro and Hogan make no secret of what they’re trying to do in this novel: As vampires land in Manhattan, it’s time for a zombie epidemic scenario featuring blood-suckers.

The post-9/11 setting offers a few more interesting critical opportunities, especially considered within the book’s techno-thriller affections.  From the Dracula-inspired opening sequence in which a Boeing 777 lies immobile on the JFK tarmac with only four survivors left inside, The Strain co-opts some of the techno-thriller tricks to heighten its depiction of an initial vampire outbreak.  We get short chapters alternating between many narrative viewpoints.  We get tons of historical and technical details weaved into the fabric of the story.  We even get historical flashbacks explaining back-story, familiar characters, one-off vignettes in which the viewpoint character ends up dying horribly and use of landmark locations in action set-pieces.  (Or, as it happens, the use of former landmark locations in action set-pieces.)

It may be familiar, but it works well: The opening sequence is creepy in part because it explains so patiently how official authorities would react to a supernatural mystery.  The picture that del Toro and Hogan end up creating of modern New York feels convincing, and does much to distinguish this novel from others in the same pack.  The use of thriller plot mechanics also allows the story to tackle a bigger canvas than other horror novels, which is practically a necessity in this avowed first volume of a trilogy that seems headed for global apocalypse.

This potential for scope and breath, however, remains the most distinctive element of a novel that remains overly familiar in its other aspects.  If the vampire/zombie hybrids feel as if they stepped out of Blade 2, the human characters also seem to come out of Central Casting: Give me an overworked divorced scientist, a wizened holocaust survivor and a level-headed blue-collar worker! The entire narrative thrust of the novel is just as ordinary, down to the convenient “kill the head of the vampires and the rest will die” plot device.  The inevitable ending is also predictable from the moment we understand that this is the first volume of a trilogy.

The good news are that the first volume does set up a promising follow-up, and that the novel is solid enough to please horror fans looking for an uncompromisingly gory take on the vampire genre.  The Strain is forthright enough to announce that the two other volumes in the trilogy, The Fall and The Night Eternal, will be forthcoming in June 2010 and 2011.  Hopes are that they will take the story in more original territory.

[October 2010: The Fall is a decent follow-up in that it continues the story is pretty much the same way, using pretty much the same characters and monsters.  While the apocalyptic atmosphere is stronger, the techno-thriller detailing isn’t as strong.  Traditional narrativus interruptus is typical for a second-volume-in-a-trilogy.  Recommended for fans of the first book, although it won’t make new converts to the series.]