Castaways on pig island

Paul Constant

December 3, 2019

Early in Bong Joon-Ho's excellent film Parasite, a poor family is given a "scholar stone" — a large and unwieldy rock that supposedly brings wealth to its owner. The teenage son of the family, Ki-woo, handles the heavy stone with awe, exclaiming breathlessly, "it's so metaphorical!”

With this very funny line of dialogue, Bong Joon-Ho is having it both ways. He is introducing what is, in fact, a potent metaphor into his movie. But he's also stepping back and laughing at the metaphor by pointing it out within the narrative. It's detached irony and aching sincerity, all in one minor aside by one of the film's major characters.

It is in my most Ki-woo voice, then, in which I inform you that Pigs, the newest novel by Walla Walla author (and LaSalle Storyteller Award recipient) Johanna Stoberock, is very metaphorical. It's a novel about children who live on an island in the middle of the ocean along with large and eternally hungry feral pigs. The whole world's garbage washes up on the shore of the island — pieces of plastic, appliances, paper products, iron — and the children feed the garbage to the pigs. Meanwhile, some clueless adults also live on the island in a state of deep delusion. This delicate balance is upturned and everything starts to go wildly wrong.

The premise of Pigs itself feels cobbled together from the remains of dozens of other abandoned fictional works. Lord of the Flies comes to mind immediately, of course, and there's some Lost in there, too, along with Gilligan's Island and pretty much every New Yorker one-panel gag strip about desert islands. It feels like the island in Pigs has lived in our subconscious since before you and I were born. It only shifts slightly in tone to reacclimate to the current moment.

As someone who lives in the current moment, you will probably not be surprised to hear that the current state of affairs on Castaway Island is pretty damn bleak. The children of Pigs are clever, but they are not plucky. They seem resigned to their fates, shoveling garbage at the pigs out of fear more than anything else. As bad as things are, they suspect that things can get even worse.

Part of the problem is that the water surrounding the island, which is often a metaphor for both alienation and the key to escaping alienation, is even more sinister than the always-starving pigs: "They were all afraid of the gray water, of the sea in a mood of despair," Stoberock writes. "It wrapped the island like a scarf made of grief. It made you choke with tears to touch it."

Still, in all the despair, the children find their purpose. One of the children, Mimi, exploits their plight as a bedtime story for a toddler named Natasha:

The world wouldn't know what to do without us. The world should be holding its breath hoping we don't find our way out of this place. It should be praying that we never grow up, that we just stay here forever cleaning up its trash. The world should be sending us giant fruit baskets to say thank you. But nobody likes to think about it. So instead of saying thank you, the world pretends we don't exist. And sends us its trash.

This isn't just about garbage. It's about inborn obsolescence, and our utter refusal to be happy:

Plastic bottles because no one trusted tap water. Fur coats that were splashed with paint. Television screens that simply weren't flat enough. Weight lost in weight loss competitions. Mothers' wedding dresses that daughters had no interest in wearing. Toothpaste samples from the dentist. Love poems written by boyfriends long ago.

It is just so metaphorical. Is Pigs about climate change? Yes. Is it about rampant capitalism? Yup. Is it about the way older generations have sabotaged the world for future generations? You bet! And it's also a meditation on everything we discard — not just our garbage but our half-formed ideas and our stubbed ambitions and our idiotic quest for perfection in a decidedly imperfect world.

While the children work themselves to blind submission, adults on the island seem eternally caught up in a cocktail party. They do their nails. They discuss etiquette. They dress up and talk about things that don't matter. One of the children wonders "where they got their clothes. She wanted to know how they kept their skin so smooth."

In the end, the child looks at the adults and wonders, "Why couldn't a book ever wash ashore that would teach her, step by step, how best to become an adult?" The obvious answer is that no such book exists, and that's kind of what Pigs is about, too.

Stoberock is a world-class builder of worlds. The island of Pigs is constructed so carefully that it feels as solid as the ground your feet is touching right now. The book's structure allows for our discovery of the island's rules and geography. Even though the story keeps to a confined space, Stoberock keeps attacking that space from different angles, making us reconsider the depth and the breadth of the island.

One wonders, though, if perhaps Pigs would feel more elemental, more like a fairy tale, if it were shorter. At 260 pages it never bores readers, but a decent trim might leave us enthralled and wanting more. And while the book thrums with potent symbolism that ably combines the modern with the mythic, one character having his eyes cut out as punishment feels like an overwrought cliche from a different time.

Still, Pigs is unlike anything else you've read this year. While some novels rely on plot to keep readers turning pages, and other novels lean on characterization above all else, Stoberock is building a world on top of ever-changing metaphors, and that construction is what keeps readers turning pages. It's a novel built out of the raw materials of imagination, and it couldn't be any more more written for this exact moment in time if it was carved into rock by lightning.

Books in this review:
  • Pigs
    by Johanna Stoberock
    Red Hen Press
    October 1, 2019
    260 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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