This first novel, written by a young documentary filmmaker, describes the production of a year-long series about red meat broadcast on Japanese network television and sponsored by BEEF-EX, a U.S. lobby group looking for new markets for American meats. Robust, funny and insistently educational in tone, "My Year of Meats" deals with the cross-pollination of people and values, toxicity in meat, synthetic estrogens, camera angles and the ever-pertinent issue of perspective and reliability in the media. The only problem is that Ozeki's novel sometimes feels as much like a Lifetime movie as a complex, hard-hitting exposi.
Jane Takagi-Little, the tall daughter of a Midwestern father and Japanese mother, is hired to help produce weekly installments for a show called "My American Wife." Each episode will offer a tightly wrapped cameo of a traditional American family, promote "authentic" values, scroll through a recipe and culminate in the attractive presentation of a meal of red meat by the week's chosen wife. Despite the infomercial aspect to the series, Jane sees this as documentary work; she believes individual episodes can be used to undermine pat notions about what it means to be American. As she learns more about meat production, feedlots and the harmful use of artificial growth stimulants in cattle, the camera also becomes a means of countering ignorance and unchecked consumerism.
When a mishap puts one of the visiting Japanese directors out of commission, Jane is given command. In a heartbeat, she's off making episodes about people the conservative network considers less than "wholesome": a Mexican couple, a Louisiana family with a dozen adopted children (many shipped over from Korea), a vegetarian and biracial lesbian couple who cook pasta primavera. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a woman named Akiko prepares the recipes (including "beef fudge") and rates the episodes, as instructed, for her husband, the chief drone at the ad agency representing BEEF-EX. She's physically abused and mocked by her husband and has become bulimic, perhaps to avoid pregnancy through malnourishment. The purpose and often conflicting aims of making a documentary are highlighted by how Jane and Akiko ultimately view the series: For Jane the shows are about transcending demographic divisions and going public with difficult information, while for the book's Japanese protagonist the shows offer a glimpse of some otherworldly realm where relations between people can actually be loving and pleasant.
"My Year of Meats" is compelling reading but aggressively stage-managed; ultimately, it's too subservient to the author's didactic zeal. By the end of the novel everything has come full circle, a dollop of self-consciousness is parceled out to all (or most) of the characters, Japan is minus one citizen and everyone knows more about hormones and the horrific practices going on in some feedlots. What's unfortunate here is that Ozeki's compassion for her characters causes her to pursue her list of causes so forcefully that readers are liable to feel manipulated. It doesn't help that doctors and other experts are paraded through the novel to provide whatever information is deemed necessary at the moment. There are large and generous ambitions in this novel, but in fiction as in documentaries, all is not always well that ends well.