Julie Powell's Cleaving Is A Bloodbath Of Meat/Sex MetaphorsS

A combination of the writer-learns-to-clown/cobble/farm genre and that newish breed, the personal-meat-journey, with the subgenre that might be called the infidelity-food memoir (a venerable oeuvre pioneered by M.F.K. Fisher, advanced by Ruth Reichl and Judith Jones), Cleaving gives good blood.

Julie and Julia, the stunt-phenomenon that made Julie Powell a literary star, was a book very much about envy, and resentment, and discontent. So for those who related to Powell's jealousy, in that book, of her more successful friends, it may perhaps gratify you to know that her success did not spell contentment. Instead, she felt unmoored and unhappy and entered into a torrid, bondage-tinged affair, which morphed into the world's most awful-sounding open marriage, which turned into obsession and depressing sex with strangers, which in turn made her become an apprentice butcher. Memoirs, generally speaking, fall into two categories: "I can relate" and "I want to go on your adventure." This is somewhere between the two, and not quite enough of either.

And, yes, the butchery metaphors flow. Mind-numbing pages of carcasses being broken down (and I'm interested in this stuff!) as Julie tries to escape/find herself amidst locally-raised meats interlock with equally lurid accounts of sex. Relationships and meat get chopped up - repeatedly, and explicitly. Muscle and bone and grass-raised gore become preferable to the author's fixation on the guy who's dumped her - like having to watch a friend make really bad choices, but covered in animal blood. The writing is good - but as in all such writer-immerses-himself-in-new-world, there's an element of cultural tourism (I'm not even talking here about her fifth-act stint with the Masai) that made me, for one, relieved when Powell is rejected by a number of grizzled third-generation butchers and ends up instead at a new-wave artisanal spot in upstate New York. (It never seems to be that third-generation butcher - the one who does it every day, for years - seeing his work in terms of beauty and metaphor.)

I'm not questioning the author's genuine commitment to butchery, but it's pretty clear that more is going on with the meat metaphor - hell, the meat book, a genre in itself - than an enthusiasm for aged steak. Meat has become a cultural touchstone, be it old-school masculinity, new masculinity (looking at you, Jonathan Safran-Foer), defiance (The Shameless Carnivore), ambivalence (The Compassionate Carnivore) locavore rock-stardom or self-exploration like Powell's memoir or the recent Meat, A Love Story. And it's rarely about the protein. It's about masculinity, femininity, place in the world and planet. (Short-order short-hand, if you will.) It's a disingenuous return to the primitive, but it's suspiciously on-trend. That said, if Powell's book was designed to forestall envy of a freelancer-made-good, in one regard she failed: it's still hard to get past the freedom to pursue an interest for six months - not to mention the international meat tour she takes afterwards to Elizabeth Gilbert her heart and mind into order. And as her discontent seems far from resolved by book's end, I'd guess we haven't heard the last.

Cleaving