Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In The Cannibal, the cannibalistic processes of nature, including human nature, dominate life when institutions of order have been destroyed in war. These institutions, however, are also destructive in their efforts to repress or control the processes of life. Zizendorf’s plan to assassinate Leevey and to establish a neo-Nazi state parallels the nationalistic dream of Germany in 1914 and the Nazi goals of the 1930’s. Each past dream is destructive, resulting in war, and each is abortive, destroyed by the war it provokes.

The parallel expressions of the cannibalistic life force in nature, in human beings, and in institutions are implied when Stella wonders how cannibals “could bear, in only their feathers, this terrible sun.” She sees them, “carrying victims high over their heads, as tall vengeful creatures who sang madly on their secret rock.” Stella senses the “terrifying similarity” between the cannibalism of nature, represented by the “terrible sun,” and the cannibalism of people. Their need to protect themselves from death by feeding off the life of others parallels the need of the visible world to perpetuate itself. The cannibals secure a rock, an enclave of order, to facilitate their feeding and to protect themselves from the natural world and from other cannibals. The cannibals and their rock parallel the world’s nations and their institutions of protective-repressive order.

The disorder and the threats of destruction that confront Zizendorf and the other characters are mirrored for the reader in the apparent incoherence of the novel and in John Hawkes’s focus on seemingly gratuitous horrors. The central enormity is the butchering of Jutta’s son by the cannibalistic Duke. Hawkes’s surrealistic style contributes a nightmare quality to the novel. Like a literal nightmare, the novel is also characterized by disruption of chronology, abrupt transition in place, and fragmentation of action. The narrative of the first and third sections is interrupted by the narrative of the second section. Similar interruptions occur within each section as Hawkes carries several actions forward simultaneously....

(The entire section is 881 words.)