Today’s Bloganuary prompt is:
What is a treasure that’s been lost?
DOGMEAT, a novella by Priscilla Bettis, immediately sprung to mind.
Set in a totalitarian society during the 1980’s, DOGMEAT is the story of Ward, a young man whose job it is to torture and kill dogs for a local restaurant (because the more they suffer, the better they taste). Ward hates his job and struggles against the horrific constraints of The Colony. His parents, who grew up before the revolution, try to pass on education, arts and literature to their son, but does this help Ward or make his suffering more extreme?
There are so many layers to this story. Bettis is an extremely talented author. Her prose is so beautiful that it captivates you, even when the subject matter is brutal and disturbing. I was drawn into the story from the first page and my attention was gripped until the last.
This excellent review by JF Kaufman (click here) describes how The Colony is the ideal of totalitarianism rather than a shadow of any real life regime, with many examples to illustrate the point and show the detail and care that Bettis put into crafting this novella.
While I don’t disagree, I was strongly reminded of communism in China under Mao. So many scenes in DOGMEAT were like reading events out of non fiction books and memoirs I’ve read about this time, and while Bettis does an excellent job, DOGMEAT is not as horrific as reality, nor as disturbing because Ward isn’t a real person.
Perhaps because of my reading of the horrors people have suffered under real life totalitarian regimes, I was not as shocked or disgusted as other readers appear to have been by this novella. When it comes to brutal, bizarre and horrific, reality will always trump fiction. No matter what an author thinks up, someone will really have done something much more extreme, and it’s worse because real people are involved. The truth is so wide and unbelievable that you couldn’t write about most things in a novel without altering them because readers would think the story too far fetched.
What I love about fiction over non fiction is that the author is able to show the how’s and whys, the big picture, the plan that exists in reality but is invisible to us because we are too caught up in the minutiae. Sometimes, hundreds of years after an event, all the different strands become clear, but other times we will never be able to gather all the information to create a clear picture of how and why something happened. At least not in this world.
This brings me back to the bloganuary prompt for today, and why it made me think of DOGMEAT.
What is a treasure that’s been lost?
While reading DOGMEAT I kept thinking something was missing. The prose is beautiful, but the things it describes are filthy, base and grounded in the most basic of human functions. What is missing is soul. The lack of God, of creativity, of the desire of the characters to elevate themselves above their physical nature, has stripped the members of The Colony of their humanity. What Bettis so subtly and superbly displays in this novella is the lost treasure of spirit. While Ward struggles against his chains, he is firmly stuck in the mud with his fellow man. There is no looking at the stars. His rebellion is all physical – desiring different coloured sandals and imagining himself distanced from his body. The Colony’s hold is so insidious, there is no small part of Ward’s interior life where he can be free. The closest we get to glimpsing the freedom of spirit is Ward’s mother (and the stories of his father).
They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and Bettis certainly highlights what a treasure spirit is by it’s absence. The spirit of love, of imagination, of creativity that allows us to become more than mere meat puppets and slaves to our needs and desires, does not have a place in The Colony. While I would like to believe that spirit can’t be totally destroyed in the individual, it certainly is the enemy of totalitarianism.
At first the lack of humanity upset me, but I now realize it is another layer in this dark novella that cuts close to the bone.