Tales of Common Sorrow
A New Approach to Animal (and Human)
Rights Fiction

Book Review by Norm Phelps

Job Enters a Pain Clinic and Other Stories, by Roberta Kalechofsky.
Marblehead, MA,                                   undated. Trade paperback, 214
pages.

More than thirty years after Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation put animal rights on the social
justice agenda, there have been few attempts at animal rights fiction. In fact, it is hard to say
what genuine animal rights fiction might look like or how one would approach writing it. The
difficulty is obvious. We cannot enter the minds of other species the way we can enter the
minds of humans, and therefore, it is hard to depict their interior lives in a way that readers will
find persuasive.
 One approach would be to write naturalistically about the lives of animals, for example, in
laboratories or on factory farms.  But since the drama of the story will of necessity revolve
around the struggles of the human characters, they will become the focus of the plot and the
animals will risk being shunted to the periphery of the reader’s concern. Upton Sinclair’s The
Jungle, which dealt with the conditions in a slaughterhouse, led to greatly improved health
inspection for meat, slightly improved conditions for slaughterhouse workers, and no changes
at all for animals.
 Another possible approach would be to assume that the mental lives of animals are similar to
those of human beings and write stories about four legged humans. But these stories would
almost certainly be dismissed as shameless anthropomorphizing and readers would refuse to
take them seriously. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, which was written to improve the lives of
horses, has been treated almost since it was written as a fable for children. Skywater, Melinda
Worth Popham’s 1990 novel told from the point of view of a coyote, is back in print after
being unavailable for several years, but it is regarded simply as a literary tour de force, a fable
interesting mainly for its brilliant style.
 A third approach would be to write about an animal rights activist. Edward Abbey took a
similar tack in his classic environmental novel The Monkeywrench Gang, but since forests,
rivers, and deserts have no interior lives that are important to the moral or the movement of
the story, the comparison is not really valid. Daniel Quinn’s celebrated pedagogical novel
Ishmael is really about deep ecology and the moral and practical pitfalls of civilization. The
great ape who teaches the lessons is little more than a literary device.
  J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello has an animal rights advocate as its central character (I
hesitate to call such a petty, diffident, and feckless bundle of neuroses a hero, or even a
protagonist.), and he even gives her the opportunity to deliver a lecture, but she uses it to argue
that the difference between humans and animals is so great, and animal minds are so physically
oriented (because animals allegedly lack language and think entirely in terms of their bodily
sensations) that only great poetic geniuses like Ted Hughes (Give me a break!), herself (and
Coetzee?) can intuit their inner lives. She also manages to praise bullfighting and Hemingway’s
descriptions of it because they celebrate the primitive rather than the rational. No wonder
Elizabeth Costello has made not a ripple in the animal protection community, has lent no
momentum to the animal rights movement, and is attended to only by postmodernist literary
critics looking for tenure or a full professorship.
 Finally, there is the approach of writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer in his stories “The
Slaughterer” and “The Letter Writer” and Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of
Being, who critique the institutionalized exploitation of animals in our societies by depicting the
devastating psychological effects that it has on the human protagonists and by having these
characters reflect explicitly on the injustice and inhumanity of animal exploitation.
 A new approach to dealing with animal issues in fiction has been created by Roberta
Kalechofsky, founder and president of Jews for Animal Rights. Best known for her courageous
and pioneering work on behalf of animals within the Jewish tradition—including her books
Vegetarian Judaism and Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb (a liturgy for a vegetarian seder)—
Dr. Kalechofsky is also a gifted writer of fiction. (Interestingly, Kalchofsky has a considerable
reputation in Italian academic and literary circles—where she has been called, not entirely
accurately, thank goodness—“a prophet without honor in her own country”—primarily for her
fiction.)
 In her collection of short stories and novellas, Job Enters a Pain Clinic, Roberta Kalechofsky
focuses on the antithetical but inextricably linked experiences of suffering and affection,
especially the suffering that one group of beings inflicts on another, whether it be Nazis on
Jews, Gypsies, and Socialists (“Four Women from Ravensbruck” and “My Poor Prisoner”),
the warring classes on each other in revolutionary France (“Orpheus in the Bastille”), or
medical researchers on animals (the title story and “Requiem for a Mouse”). Taken as a whole,
this volume of stories shouts out loud what each individual story whispers so subtly that you
are not quite sure you heard correctly: Suffering and affection are two common denominators
that bind humans and animals together. Humans and animals suffer alike—and the suffering of
both is often caused, quite gratuitously and maliciously, by humans—and humans and animals
both find solace in affection for individuals of their own kind and of other species.
 By not focusing specifically and directly on the animals, but on our shared plight and our
common response to it, Kalechofsky has devised a highly original and insightful solution to the
problem of how to write animal rights fiction.
 From a stylistic standpoint, these stories are tightly constructed—even those that do not
follow a conventional dramatic arc—and her prose is crisp, clear, and well crafted. They kept
me absorbed, and it was only while reflecting on them afterwards that I realized I had been
taught lessons about cruelty, compassion, affection, the corruption that comes with power, and
the essential unity of humans and animals. But here, a word of caution: By contemporary
standards, there are no graphic or horrific descriptions here. Kalechofsky relies on
understatement and a matter-of-fact but inexorable dramatic rhythm to instill in the reader a
growing sense of horror at the cruelties and agonies that are being described. But I had to read
these stories slowly, one or two at a time, to keep from being overwhelmed by sorrow.
  Although imbued with a sensibility that derives from the Biblical and Talmudic traditions,
these are not specifically “Jewish” stories and Kalechofsky, at least in this volume, is not a
Jewish writer in the sense that, say, I. B. Singer, or Sholem Aleichem were Jewish writers:
which is to say that while she writes from within a Jewish spiritual and moral universe, the
stories in Job Enters a Pain Clinic are not dependent upon a Jewish cultural context for their
dramatic movement and character development.
 It is a commonplace to divide fiction into two categories: stories that are driven by plot and
stories that are driven by character. But in a most interesting and valuable way, the stories in
this collection are guided by neither; they are meditations upon states of being, for Kalechofsky
sees cruelty, callousness, suffering, fear, compassion, love, loneliness, companionship, not as
mere acts or moods, but as the fundamental categories that define all sentient beings. And it is
this profound—and profoundly disturbing—perspective that opens up a new and challenging
avenue for the fictional exploration of questions relating to social justice for both humans and
animals. For in Kalechofsky’s compassionate vision, human rights and animal rights are merely
two aspects of the only possible moral response to the recognition that our fellow creatures are
all sentient beings like ourselves. At once simple and sophisticated, Job Enters a Pain Clinic
combines art and advocacy in remarkable ways that point to a new avenue for both animal
rights and human rights fiction.