The Cook is a gobsmacker of a book.
Written by the much-lauded Australian writer Wayne Macauley, The Cook’s themes of capitalism-gone-mad, excessive consumption, untrammelled growth and rampant exploitation of humans, animals and natural resources is timely.
Macauley explores a number of issues recently highlighted by the Occupy Movement, animal welfare groups and the GFC through his main protagonist Zac, one of a number of young offenders sent to Cook School to learn a trade and become decent, upstanding and productive citizens.
The story, told from Zac’s point of view, pays no heed to commas or quotation marks so that sentences tumble and flow. It is an inspired choice that takes us along for a hypnotising ride and immerses us fully in Zac’s macabre world, which, we learn along the way, is our world too.
Zac, unlike most of the ne’er-do-wells who end up at Cook School, is not only determined to make a new start, he has his heart set on becoming one of the world’s great chefs. A lad to be applauded, he embodies the qualities we most admire: hard work, ambition and a belief in the individual. Zac, who is happy to work long hours for a pittance, is the equivalent of every free marketeer’s wet dream. And like most in the western world and beyond, he’s swallowed the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism hook, line and sinker:
Cook School was my university and I was learning things I never learned while I was pissing my future up against the wall. What else are rich and successful people except those who’ve learnt how to manipulate what’s around them a guy dealing win the money market architects designing fancy buildings TV guys making TV shows selling dreams to losers writers and their happy endings. That’s what civilisation is I reckon manipulating nature.
Zac takes on Head Chef’s (Head Chef didn’t have to wear a cravat for me to channel Matt Preston) dictum that power is achieved through service. Maybe that’s what the contestants on MasterChef and its huge audiences believe too, persuaded by a popular culture that depicts working your arse off in the kitchen as somehow glamorous.
But unlike MasterChef, which spares the salivating audience the suffering of the animal, the recipes in The Cook start with the slaughter of the beast. Macauley seems to have had a lot of fun contrasting the brutality of the kill with what ends up on the plate:
… I put them on the bench and got a cleaver and with a sharp whack I cracked open the skulls and wrenched them apart with my fingers. The brains inside were still warm and slippery. I put them on the bench … We plated up I garnished mine with warm baby onions caramelised in balsamic and some sprigs of fresh Italian parsley.
A vegetarian troubled by the ethics of eating meat, I’m probably not the right person to judge the mouth-watering appeal or otherwise of Zac’s recipes. But appetite’s a funny thing. Head Chef again:
To public taste. To whim. To folly. To whatever looks and smells new. We bow to the fickle and frivolous we are servants of all that is decadent excessive unnecessary.
Still, I’d be surprised if carnivores didn’t struggle with the mess of blood and guts that precedes the plating up of body parts even when they’ve been simmered and dressed up with nasturtiums.
The glorification of food and the adulation of celebrity chefs also act as barometers of social decay. As Shelley Gare points out in her must-read The triumph of the airheads and the retreat from common sense, all that it takes for a kind of amoral airheadism to thrive is for people to be distracted by money or power or both.
When halfway through the novel, Zac is whisked from Cook School to serve as cook to a wealthy family, I was grateful to be transported from the killing fields to gentility no matter how superficial or dysfunctional:
My husband she said is a very rich man we are a very rich family we can have whatever we want when we want it but you know I’m going to tell you a secret all I really want is for us to sit down together once a day five days a week as a family and talk.
The end when it comes shouldn’t have been a surprise – like a good crime novel all the clues were there – but be warned: don’t read the last chapter just before you turn out the light. The sickening dénouement is not one of the happy endings Zac decries in an earlier passage. It is, however, an antidote to fiction that too often massages misplaced beliefs in our selves, our society and our humanity.
It is impossible to read The Cook and not examine your own conscience: the status we seek by virtue of the food we serve and eat, the bars we seek out, the indulgences we permit and excuse because we are, for some reason or another, deserving. No matter how we critique late-capitalism, we are all seduced by its temptations and we are all complicit in its endurance and its legacy.
The Cook is not without its faults. The wealthy but dislocated family was a little too clichéd, Zac’s transformation from bad boy to brilliant chef in just a few months stretched credibility, and Zac’s shift to the family had it come earlier – slaughter and its metaphors were wearing a bit thin – would have better served the themes of the narrative. But these are minor quibbles. For my money, The Cook does a better and more nuanced job of showing the excesses of late-capitalism, its gluttony, its ambition and its class relations, than The Slap. And it has a sense of humour, albeit a dark one.
The Cook is one of the most disturbing novels I’ve read in a long time. I hope it ends up, as did Macauley’s debut novel Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, on the VCE reading list.