Abandon Every Hope takes the form of a thanatography – an attempt to write death – which Hayley Singer describes as having a “nearness to biography”. What biography does for a life, that is, thanatography might do for death, although its subject matter is far more difficult to apprehend or to give shape to. There are no first-person accounts of death, after all – “so little can be copied from that passage beyond”, Singer writes. It is impossible to enter into the experience or to go along for the ride. And the silences and discomfort that so often surround mortality only serve to further complicate any attempt.
It’s unsurprising, then, that absences and gestures towards the unspoken and inexpressible are central to Singer’s book. In some ways they are a product of the form, and enabled by it too. Singer uses the thanatography to make a series of approaches towards her subject matter, to capture the “procession[s]” and “pathway[s]” towards death, but also to leave space for the unknown and for places where words fail. Her thanatography is fragmentary, built from collisions and juxtapositions, combinations of imagination and the real, the personal and the theoretical, the brutal and the banal. It is an eclectic assembling that favours open-endedness, over-spill and multiplicity over what Singer describes as “narrative coherence” and false neatness.
This combinatory structure is powerful precisely because it doesn’t require neatness – the kind of containment or overt interpretation of that might curtail or tame its material. Its moments of horror and violence, in particular, become all the more forceful because they are left unelaborated and are allowed to linger.
Horror, brutality and violence are frequent, even accruing, occurrences in Abandon Every Hope. This is because the death that Singer is attempting to account for here isn’t individual, but massive: it is industrial in scale. The book’s dead are animal, rather than human – or as Singer posits, meat rather than flesh. Singer describes meat production as a “collective animal trauma” against which our inattention and deliberate disregard form “a collective human barricade” – and attempts to understand precisely how and why this happens. Abandon Every Hope traverses abattoirs, cargo ships, supermarkets, meatpacking plants and stockyards in its reckoning with death at an unimaginable scale, and with the broad refusal and cognitive denial that is required for the industry that produces it to exist.
The dead that Singer invokes in her thanatography often figure as an almost tangible haunting, something inescapable and deeply personal, inextricable from her grief. Singer’s descriptions of her agitation are striking and often rely on visual incongruity or bodily estrangement that’s visceral in its effect. This haunting sets awry Singer’s daily life and adds a dizzying uncanniness to the uncertainty and anxiety that the early days of the pandemic have already unleashed. The author’s emotional trajectory as she works and the increasing confusion within her world together form something of a subplot – albeit also with a narrative that’s loose and disconnected. Central to this subplot is consideration of work and duty, writing and its purpose, duress and what it takes and means to survive.
This subplot works at times to ground some of the book’s more theoretical or abstract material or to demonstrate how it might play out in a concrete sense – especially when Singer relays a small, ironic detail or brief encounter that is devastating in what it illuminates: when she encounters, for example, jokes about meat – “What do you call a cow with no legs? Ground beef!” – or is regaled with them by a delighted colleague. Elsewhere it steps outside the text and into reflections about the difficulty of this kind of writing, including into Singer’s transcribed project notes to herself – “Ask strange questions ... Search for meanings that are not self-evident.” Not all of these metatextual elements are as effective or insightful as the more emotional or personal parts of this narrative. As a whole, the book often has a heightened, almost airless quality that can feel relentless or disproportionately weighted. Singer states, for example, “Writing, if it is capable of doing anything at all, has to incite total animal liberation.”
But Abandon Every Hope is a book invigorated by this kind of risk, as well as by its formal boldness and unabashed ambition. It is exciting too for its timeliness. One of its most powerful sections details some of the effects of the pandemic on the meat industry in America, where there were high rates of infection within processing plants and their workers, and the resulting shortages and “situation of backlogging” led to mass livestock culling.
What is most admirable about Abandon Every Hope is that it demands of its reader an attention and care that are part and parcel of its project. It looks directly and in detail at the animal dead that it invokes and challenges the reader not to avert their gaze. It is a demand that’s underpinned by a respect for the reader and the work they are willing to do, which is refreshing and powerful in equal measure. Singer’s writing is rigorous and often lyrical and there’s an insistence and urgency that always propel this work and make it deeply compelling, despite its brutal and confronting subject matter.
Upswell, 180pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "Abandon Every Hope: Essays for the Dead, Hayley Singer".
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