At a time when postmodernism and nostalgia saturate the cultural landscape, a novel that proudly references beloved genre works of the past and flaunts its literary influences isn’t remarkable. There are probably half a dozen summer titles fitting this description on any bookstore’s shelves right now, and perhaps another half dozen will release this fall. Kea Wilson’s We Eat Our Own separates itself from the pack with effective second-person storytelling, a fascinating setting, wide-ranging research that will satisfy compulsive fact-checkers, and a writing style that’s as varied and unpredictable as the novel’s characters.
The cast includes an American actor desperate for a break (and a break from life’s troubles), his provocative female costar, their slightly deranged Italian director, the members of a South American drug cartel, and a few lackeys from an Amazonian paramilitary organization, among others. A giant anaconda also figures into the plot. This book is about the making of a horror film, but it’s also about the mechanics of fear, which makes it infinitely more interesting than if it were merely a paean to giallo and slasher flicks. The trickiness of verisimilitude between life and art and the struggle to locate personal identity, rather than exist as a passive product of culture, form a dark undercurrent in the story, much like the Amazon River flowing past many of the book’s locales.
Anyone interested in film production, the craft of acting, special effects, or South American politics will find any of those subjects a handy inroad to the complex web of people and events within We Eat Our Own, but you don’t have to be a movie buff or political science major to become lost in this tense tale. The courtroom drama sections similarly enrich without requiring legal knowledge. In fact, it’s these portions of the book that show best how Wilson is herself much like the unhinged director at the heart of the novel. She withholds information from the reader while seeming to share it, leaving crucial pieces of the puzzle for the end of the book, and her awareness of what brutality and violence can do never hinder her willingness to thrust it onto the page. With a quick point of view change, she deepens a character or bends the plot. Stylistic elements like parallel structure and a penchant for posing questions artfully blend form and function.
We Eat Our Own would be easy to sell as a creepy Halloween read, but it’s much more than that. Part mystery, part social novel, part love letter to the dark underbelly of film, it works on so many levels that I ran out of fingers trying to count them all. Holding equal appeal to the cultural theorist and schlock-film junkie, Wilson’s novel slips the bonds of genre to become something uniquely its own.
We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson (Scribner | 9781501128318 | September 6, 2016)