Johanna Stoberock’s “Pigs” is a necessary reminder that when we throw something away, there is no “away.” There is only “out of sight.” In reality, it might build up into a giant trash island floating in the Pacific. In the novel, it is dropped onto a tropical island where a group of children feed it to a pen full of insatiable pigs.
Readers might see echoes of “The Lord of the Flies” in the plot of “Pigs.” Both novels follow a group of children as they struggle to survive on an uncaring island. But while “The Lord of The Flies” is about the restraining influence of civilization on barbaric human nature, “Pigs” is an inversion. The children are generally , courageous, hard-working, resourceful and stoic. It’s civilization that is wasteful, arrogant, hedonistic, self-destructive and violent.
Civilization appears not only in the steady stream of garbage that washes ashore, but also in the “grown-ups” who saunter about in a beautiful compound above the shoreline drinking martinis, wearing fabulous clothes and jewelry, gorging on fine food and complaining of their hangovers. At best they ignore the children and passively exploit them for their labor; at worst they have violent episodes that force the children to hide in a nearby cave.
The children find themselves on this island without any backstory. They’ve been there as long as they can remember. They are remarkably tough and self-sufficient—able to feed and clothe themselves, willing to dispose of the world’s garbage, and used to occupational hazards like losing fingers to over-eager pigs. They also intuit the unspoken rules: Never take anything from the garbage for themselves. It must go directly into the maws of the pigs. Never go into the water. Never talk to the grown-ups without being spoken to. Always do as they say.
When a boy in an oil drum washes ashore and disturbs this uneasy arrangement, a recurring question is introduced: can a human being be garbage? What’s the value of human life and what does it mean to be human?
Stoberock throws into sharp relief the crisis of materialism, waste and excess in our culture. We are so enamored with our objects and appetites that we blind ourselves to human dignity, morality and ecology. It would be too easy to say that the adults represent the rich and the rest of us are closer to the children. Those of us in the global north living normal, comfortable lives are not so unlike those grown-ups that live at the expense of the children and the environment. The degree of our self-indulgence and the visibility of its consequences may be different, but the basic story is powerfully encapsulates a modern reality.
We did not create the system, but our civilization plunders the natural bounty of the global south, makes use of a giant workforce of poorly paid laborers and then delivers back a mountain of garbage. That’s not to say the system is entirely zero-sum and that the story of capitalism is entirely one of exploitation. But this way is untenable.
Nature is remarkably adaptable and resilient. It can handle an extraordinary amount of abuse. In one memorable scene, the kids feed radioactive waste to the pigs, who consume it eagerly and without apparent consequence. But we are testing its limits. Climate change, dead zones in the ocean, habitat loss, biodiversity loss, massive fires, coral bleaching and on and on.
In spite of the overtly political nature of this review, the book does not resort to easy moralizing or obvious symbolism. The characters are well-drawn and realistic, despite the magical elements that underlie the book. But underneath that human drama is an exhortation for humanity to find a way of living well without straining ecosystems and hurting people—live in non-zero sum harmony with our world.