Note: I received a copy of this book from Scribner (via Netgalley) for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review in any way.
Reality and fiction shade into one another in We Eat Our Own—but not in the way you expect. Told through rotating viewpoints and interspersed with court testimony, Kea Wilson’s debut novel is the story of a kitschy Italian horror movie being shot in the Amazon rainforest. The story within a story? A news crew bent on tracking down a pair of anthropologists and their daughter, who have not-so-mysteriously vanished while studying a cannibalistic tribe. This kitschy movie has two twists, though: a found footage framing device, and a disappeared trio of lead actors whose on-screen murders might have been a little too realistic. Surrounding all this is a real-life backdrop equally saturated with violence, this time in the form of drug cartels and political instability.
It’s a busy novel, even for its 320 pages, and the fact that it works is largely due to two factors: Wilson’s ear for prose and the deftness with which she resists clichés. As an example of the former, consider the following passage:
On set the next day, they shoot one of the early scenes, more gratuitous nudity, more shock-value filler. Irena takes off her shirt and steps into the river to wash it. Teo yoo-hoos from where he’s been hiding on the beach, tells her to wave for the camera. She starts and gasps, throws her arms across her chest. Then the customers give her a dry shirt and she pus it on, wades out, does it again. Again…Teo is getting tired, but Irena never does. If Ugo is crazy for working this way, well, she is the same kind of crazy herself. She likes the way the lines become deliciously meaningless as she repeats them, until each word is not a word but a complex motion of the face, until she can perform the feeling with every muscle in her body, until her tongue itself is just another muscle
Wilson’s writing is lush, visceral, but almost surreally matter-of-fact—the novelistic equivalent, perhaps, of Irena’s pure, “meaningless” physicality. The tension is most apparent in scenes of violence, pushing the reader to consider whether it is reality or aesthetics that makes such scenes meaningful—if, that is, they are meaningful at all:
There was nothing Andres could do, when Juan Carlos threw one last dart at the keyhole and missed; when he cursed and yanked the record player’s cord out of the wall and stomped into the bedroom with the revolver. It was silent, then, for a moment, but Andres could still hear the chord. It was in the terrible rhythm Juan Carlos beat into the Patient’s body. It was in the pause between the two words the Patient said before the blows started: Please and Don’t.
Andres heard it in each twang of his quadriceps as he pedaled his bike home, hot wind slapping at his cheeks. Again that night, as he closed his eyes in bed, and heard his sister Luz tapping a message to him through the wall
It is this question of violence—when it is real, when it is meaningful, when it is art—that is the novel’s second strong point. Even metafiction has its favored tropes, and Wilson could easily have taken a more well-trodden path in We Eat Our Own, focusing on what happens when reality and art collapse into one another. What Wilson does is subtler; the film director Ugo Velluto is filming is violent, yes, and feeds on violence, yes, but not in quite the straightforward way the book’s promotional blurbs would have you suppose. Instead, Wilson presents art as a kind of violence in and of itself: “You will let Richard dissolve you from the inside like an acid. You know that acting is a kind of cannibalism, and you indulge in it: you will be eaten, and you will eat your own.”
Acting is violence in part because it demands the “death” of one identity, but also because it is a place where actors (in every sense of the word) can disengage from the significance of their actions. Little wonder, then, that Wilson pulls out all the stops in her efforts to break down the fourth wall; the use of second person in sections devoted to “the American actor” is an obvious example, implicating the (presumably American) reader in the novel’s gruesome denouement. Unfortunately, if We Eat Our Own has a weakness, it is these stylistic tics; though ultimately incorporated into the broader logic of the novel, they initially feel showy, and even a bit distracting.
Still, these are minor quibbles. On the whole, We Eat Our Own is a gripping read that pushes at the boundaries of the horror genre—pushes them, potentially, to include art itself.
We Eat Our Own will be published on September 6, 2016 by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
Find out more about it on Goodreads.