Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Barn 8

By Deb Olin Unferth

Reviewed By Kirk Sever

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Steve McQueen’s 2018 film, Widows, suggested heist films could address issues of sexism and race merely by taking roles historically white and male, and switching them to Viola Davis and a crew of decidedly non-criminal perpetrators. The conceit worked, and whereas this approach isn’t groundbreaking, it’s rare enough that whenever an audience is subjected to divergent characterizations, the ensuing discourse generally leads to reflections about why we don’t flip the apple cart of cliché more often. Barn 8, the latest novel by Guggenheim Fellow and Pushcart honoree Deb Olin Unferth, further shakes up heist genre clichés by not only featuring an unlikely group of characters in the narrative’s criminal conspiracy, but by having them heist something besides the typical stacks of cash, gold, or $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds. In Barn 8, the characters steal chickens.

To be fair, Unferth’s characters don’t merely steal chickens. Rather, they aim to free chickens from imprisonment in factory farms, in order to give poultry a chance to be themselves, to live free, and to become a hale, post-apocalyptic species; but you’ll have to read the book to see how chicken-kind fares in the speculative future.

The novel begins by tracking the lives of two chicken egg auditors (ethics monitors for factory farms). We meet the first auditor, Janey, as a rebellious teen, then follow her through a tragedy-ridden youth, after which she settles into an angsty despondence. Her healing begins when she meets Cleveland, already a chicken auditor and soon-to-be mentor to Janey. With a resurgence of purpose, Janey and Cleveland hatch a plot to release a million chickens from a factory farm. In the process, not only does Cleveland become Janey’s co-enabler, but a second narrative focal point. And when the duo collaborates with ex-activist Dill, a third narrator joins the novel’s collective voice, followed by a fourth, Annabelle. This expansion of vocalizers continues until there are, at one point, something like three dozen characters introduced in one chapter alone. And that’s just the humans. At other times we are shown the world through nature’s broad perspective, not to mention the instances when we follow the point of view of a plucky chicken named, because why not, “Bwwaauk”:

In nature chickens wander in crooked circles through their little villages, pace out their territory, climb up and down the trees at night, prance around each other in play, courtship, battle, while the lowliest chickens revolve on the outskirts, get picked off by predators. But their egg-manufacturing counterparts, their cousins locked in cages, do not loop like the rest of creation. They stand, push a step or two through their cell mates to sip some drops of water, their tender feet cutting into the steel.

What I’m getting at is that Unferth’s polymorphic POVs in Barn 8 suggest a certain viewpoint of the world, one where all people (and creatures) are given equal voice. Put another way, Unferth’s strategy of allowing us to see through a variety of characters suggests that we, as humans and animals, are a collective. This move from a single to a poly-narrator works with the book’s environmental themes because that kaleidoscopic gaze meshes with an ecologically balanced ideology. Or, the narratological approach of “multiple and conflicting standpoints” elevates the “high concept” and trope-ridden nature of the heist genre to something that fulfills, on a narrative level, what queer scholar Dr. Jacqueline Rhodes posits when she writes: “we need to be able to question boundaries and reposition ourselves in order to fully engage the material. Part of that positioning and repositioning takes the form of accepting the multiple and conflicting standpoints we contain even within ourselves.” In other words, in order to broaden our horizons, we need to get away from that whole singular viewpoint thing.

Sounds good in theory, but those concepts wouldn’t hold water if Unferth hadn’t fettered her multiple narrative perspectives to a volume of strongly voiced writing, nor would it matter if the various voices didn’t match the themes of the book—which they do. Barn 8 is all about anarchy and destruction and chaos and what happens when we just say, “fuck it,” and do something regardless of the consequences or benefits or potentially catastrophic outcomes. Turns out, in making a heist’s goal chickens instead of gold bullion, the characters themselves are more important than any material gain, and that, my friends, is the deepest subversion of the heist genre to date.

Kirk Sever teaches writing at three colleges in the Los Angeles area and is a fiction editor at MAYDAY Magazine. His film, music, and book reviews appear in No Ripcord, the Literary Review, and Rain Taxi, and his stories and poetry were featured in Permafrost, Storgy, and The New Short Fiction Series. In addition to being recognized by the Academy of American Poets, Kirk’s short story collection, They Crawl to the Surface, was a semi-finalist in Ohio State’s The Journal Book Prize.