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A Portrait of Modern Life in Carnal Knowledge
T. C. Boyle's "Carnal Knowledge" is a very funny, and at the same time truthful portrayal of some of the things which are going on in the world today. His description of the narrator and the way he thinks, as well as his portrayal of Alena Jorgensen, leaves the reader wondering if they have ever believed so strongly in something or acted the same way to help reach their goal. What makes this story so unique and is that takes place in our world, in a world were some people are "fond of Kentucky Fried Chicken or Chicken McNuggets" (245) and others "don't eat meat or fish or milk or cheese or eggs, and they didn't wear wool or leather or fur" (248). T. C. Boyle uses his sarcastic, yet at the same time believable, style to make the reader feel as if he was in the main character's shoes. The author guides the reader through the different stages of the character's evolution and shows how different aspects of society influence his thinking. In the end, the character concludes, just as I have, that no matter what people say "it's only meat" (257).
The story begins with the narrator being a man in his mid-thirties, with a stable job, and a normal life. The only thing missing in his life seems to be a female companion. He wants to find somebody he likes, understands and has something in common with, and he is sick of making the "acquaintance of a divorced computer programmer in her mid thirties with three kids and bad breath" (246) and her like.
Thus when he meets Alena Jorgensen he becomes bewitched and begins to try to impress her, and establish common interests. He becomes almost totally submissive as their relationship grows and unconsciously begins to do things he never thought of or cared about doing before. T. C. Boyle shows this progression in the narrator's character by describing the character's changing behavior and aspirations. Thus he shows how a normal man with "twentieth century urban American sensibility" (Utley) becomes a radical activist for animal rights. "Something was happening to me I could feel it in the way the boards shifted under me, feel it with each beat of the surf and I was ready to go along with it." (249).
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What kind of view does the reader get from seeing this transformation that the main character goes through? Does he feel that he is also sometimes subject to these same influences? Well T. C. Boyle believes that:
People want a polemic. They want to raise their fist in the air and say, "Yes, you're on our side." Well, I'm not on your side. I am presenting a fable, a fiction, so that you can judge for yourself. (qt. from interview with T. C. Boyle)
T. C. Boyle doesn't take sides, he just presents what he observes, and thus he shows the narrator of "Carnal Knowledge" as a person who is lost and doesn't really know what he is doing and what his purpose is until the end of the novel.
The main character is lost in his own mind about what is right and what is wrong, he believes only one thing "I had a cause I had Alena, Alena above all." (250). Even being demolished by rich lady's chauffeur (the former kick boxer) for getting in her face because she was wearing fur, doesn't bring him back to his senses. At the same time the narrator feels hunger when he thinks about turkeys which Alena and he are planning to save. This shows that although his beliefs on the animal rights issues might have changed (strongly influenced by his obsession with Alena), his primal instincts never changed and deep inside he still is the same meat-loving guy he was before. "I was thinking of all the turkeys I'd sent to their doom, of the plucked wishbones, the pope's noses, and the crisp browned skin I used to relish as a kid. It brought a lump to my throat and something more: I realized I was hungry." (252)
In the end, during the failed mission to save the turkeys, when the character's own life is in jeopardy, his personality makes a 180 degree turn and he changes to his old self again. No longer caring about the turkeys the narrator gives full freedom to his instinct and tries to save his own skin.
"I vaulted turkeys, kicked them aside like so many footballs, slashed and tore at them as they sailed through the air. I ran till my lungs felt as if they were burning right through my chest, disoriented, bewildered, terrified of the shotgun blast I was sure would cut me down at any moment." (255)
At this point the narrator finally realizes that he doesn't belong there, that no matter what he was told and no matter what he at one point believed, he is not going to be a "turkey liberator, and an eco-guerrilla" (256) for the rest of his life.
In the end when the narrator arrives at a McDonald's he no longer thinks of all the things going wrong with the way people are treating animals, but his only thought is of "the cavern opening inside me and how to fill it" (257). Thus finally T. C. Boyle sums up his whole message of the book people use their carnal knowledge and rely on their instincts when they are pressured to survive. The narrator's love for animal rights wasn't true and pure, it was his way of getting his carnal instincts satisfied by being able to get with Alena. This truly comes through in the end when he is concerned with eating meat to satisfy his hunger, rather than protesting it. This story makes me wonder if all humans are like the main character?