Book review: Pink Slime, by Fernanda Trías

Unsettling and unpredictable, Fernanda Trías’s novel doesn’t describe a dystopia but a full-on, Technicolor apocalypse, writes Stuart Kelly

There is a strong correlation between some forms of dystopia and environmental catastrophe. Think of JG Ballard and his debut, The Wind From Nowhere, followed by The Drowned World, or John Wyndham’s DayOf The Triffids or The Kraken Wakes, or Jeff Vander Meer’s Southern Reach trilogy. There is a sense in these works that if we damage the planet sufficiently, the planet decides to bite back. This notion is there in this novel, but in an opaque and oblique fashion. Whatever the causes and reasons, something has gone very awry indeed.

Fernanda Trías has won numerous awards, including the Uruguayan Prize for Literature. That she is not better known here is perhaps due to our insular reading habits, although an appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this month ought to boost her recognition. Pink Slime is an unsettling book, and not least because, while reading it, I had to idea where it was going to go.

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Pink Slime certainly plays with a full hand in terms of ecocide and contemporary concerns. The unnamed female narrator lives in a coastal city where the waters are infested with a toxic form of algae. A phenomenon called “the red wind” scarifies the place, except for when grey fog blankets everything. People have started to become ill, with their skin peeling off – the protagonist’s ex-partner is in “the Clinicals” where going to “Chronic” is a blessing. The fish have died, and the birds disappeared. It ratchets up more. The rich have fled inland, and those left behind are at the mercy of black marketeers and food shortages, and are often squatting in abandoned houses. Power is intermittent, and the powers-that-be seem to be impotent or duplicitous. Fires are breaking out. Worst of all, the eponymous pink slime is not a natural disaster, but a horribly described ultra-processed food called Meatrite: the scientists say things like “safety”, “bioengineering and superbacteria”, “necessitating an ammonia rinse”, and the narrator wonders about how a ham was now a perfect cube.

Fernanda TríasFernanda Trías
Fernanda Trías

As mentioned, the narrator’s former partner is hospitalised, but he was controlling and indolent beforehand. Her relationship with her mother is testy at best. She has also given up her job as a copywriter (which has bequeathed her a stash of irrelevant facts) to be the carer for Mauro, the child of a wealthy couple was has “special needs”. He does not engage, is obsessional and permanently hungry. Worse, he literally will eat anything – a child “who can’t tell the difference between a finger and a sausage” and who has eaten the entire contents of a medicine cabinet and a frozen chicken. The novel is careful in this regard. Despite being insatiable, the narrator worries that “his condition… defined him and denied him the right to be anything else”.

This is not a dystopia, but a full-on, Technicolor apocalypse. Cleverly, the links between conditions, illness and the churn of the world are never made explicit. That we are in the company of someone who truly cares makes the horror all the more visceral.

Without even seeing the author’s name, I would have guessed that there was a South American provenance. The book begins with a metafictional flourish – “If I’m going to tell this story I should choose a starting point, begin somewhere. But where? I was never any good with beginnings”. Later, she muses, “The beginning is never the beginning. What we often mistake for the beginning is just the moment we realize that something has changed”. Towards the end, “Writing is useless, I should dream it, smash the pieces of the broken urn so that no-one, not even me, can put it back together”. This self-awareness almost calms the manic nature of “just how bad things are”.

The novel is also paused by moments of dialogue between chapters. Who is speaking to whom is never wholly evident. One of the opening exchanges reads “Once upon a time. / There was what? / Once upon a time there was a time. / That never was? / That never again.” These almost all have the same cryptic, riddling style, and it is really up to the reader to make connections between these moments and the narrative. They do, however, have an insistence that there is something more metaphysical than merely shocking going on. “Inside nothing, what is there? / Nothing. / And inside that nothing? / Infinity.” It is not quite Beckett, but I have no objections to a novel that stretches the idea of the novel, and the koan-like form has a degree of resonance.

On the final page, Trías writes “I cannot stop a future that has already happened”. That seems, to me, to sum up the novel. Normally, I am a dab hand at saying “Well, I knew that was going to happen”. Pink Slime kept me guessing; but the guesswork is far less important than the emotional heft of it. What caused this chaos, this heartbreak? The pink slime was never the algae or the wind or the rendered meat. The pink slime is us.

Pink Slime, by Fernanda Trías, translated by Heather Cleary, Scribe, £12.99. Fernanda Trías is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 25 August

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