J.M. Coetzee’s new novella, The Lives of Animals, must be some kind of first. Usually when a work of fiction comes to us wrapped inside critical essays like a knife inside cardboard, the work has been published many times and the author is long dead. But here is a novella surrounded, in its first edition, with essays written by prominent academics. A literary critic, a primatologist, a historian of religion and a theoretician of animal rights have all been called in to figure out what Coetzee is up to.

If Coetzee, the South African novelist whose best and best-known book may be Waiting for the Barbarians, were an animal, he would be a fox–quick, aloof and crafty. In 1997 Coetzee was invited by the Princeton University Center for Human Values to give a pair of lectures. Instead of doing so, he presented his audience with a novella about a famous novelist who is invited to speak at a prestigious American college. Rather than discuss literature, the fictional novelist–an Australian woman named Elizabeth Costello–lectures her audience on the importance of animal rights, the moral necessity of vegetarianism. Costello’s audience is, as Coetzee’s was, a bit surprised. But while Costello is all over the place–here eloquent and astute, there slack in her reasoning and a bit hysterical–Coetzee is nowhere to be found. He sets the scene and retreats from it, and when, over an awkward dinner at the Faculty Club–only three people dare to order the fish–Costello defends her vegetarianism in strong terms and things threaten to turn acrimonious, we have little idea of where Coetzee’s own sympathies lie.

For all the metafictional high jinks, the self-reflexive character, of Coetzee’s story, there is no postmodern playfulness to it. The few jokes are academic in-jokes. The Lives of Animals partakes of Coetzee’s usual clipped and somber moral seriousness, and in that sense, much as Coetzee may have surprised his audience, this book is of a piece with his others. Indeed, animal rights and ethical vegetarianism are natural subjects for him. The debate about them turns on questions of suffering, something to which Coetzee’s sensorium is pitched with particular keenness. The narrator of Waiting for the Barbarians tells us what any Coetzee narrator might, that his ear is “tuned to the pitch of human pain.” Coetzee’s prose is able to register physical pain, and the wrack of moral confusion, so acutely that we must sometimes set his slim books down. The chicken-killing scene in Age of Iron is enough to show us that his sympathy is not confined to human pain; and if the chief problem for animals, when it comes to suffering, is that they cannot ask for mercy, the inarticulateness of Coetzee’s damaged Michael K (of Life & Times of Michael K) is enough to show us that animals are not always alone in this.

Elizabeth Costello has, like Coetzee, pricked her ears up, she feels, to a sound that no one else hears. How else could the colossal suffering of animals–“what is being done to animals at this moment in production facilities (I hesitate to call them farms any longer), in abattoirs, in trawlers, in laboratories, all over the world”–fail to evoke a universal outrage? It does not seem to her that the capacity to reason by itself confers rights on creatures, and, in any case, do we not teach experimental subjects the most cracked sort of reasoning? The subject ape is not encouraged to wonder, about his captor, “Why is he starving me?” but to think: “How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?”

From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) [the ape] is relentlessly propelled toward lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?)…. A carefully plotted psychological regimen conducts him away from ethics and metaphysics toward the humbler reaches of practical reason.

This is one of Elizabeth Costello’s most interesting ideas, that experiments on our fellow primates should lead not to either party’s enlightenment but to their intellectual, and our moral, corruption. The rest of Costello’s arguments are less original. She is often vague and distraught, uttering commonplaces. The fascination of Coetzee’s novella is not in its arguments but in how those arguments assort with character–something to which I will return.

The Lives of Animals is not the first place to go in search of the vegetarian’s rationale. The case for vegetarianism rests, at any rate, on familiar arguments. Humans have been killing and eating other animals for an immemorially long time, and the opponents of this practice have had the same expanse in which to work out their critique. Kerry Walters and Lisa Portmess’s very useful and readable Ethical Vegetarianism anthology consists of short excerpts from the writings of notable exponents of vegetarianism (not all of whom managed to forswear steak) and ends up demonstrating the substantial continuity of vegetarian thought. The nineteenth-century New England reformer William Alcott complains of the inefficiency of raising crops to feed slaughter-animals rather than humans directly, much as Frances Moore Lappé will later do, with more statistical sophistication. Peter Singer (the Princeton bioethicist who responds in the Coetzee volume with a short story of his own) offers a glimpse of the veal-calf pen hardly less vivid and painful than Tolstoy’s account of a visit to a slaughterhouse. Plutarch finds that cruelty to animals fosters cruelty to humans; Carol Adams’s feminist version of this argument is to suggest that we abstract meat from animals in a way analogous to our abstraction of sex from women. Over many centuries vegetarians have argued that meat-eating is cruel and inefficient; that it does nothing for our own physical health; and that slaughter and incidental torture, or the willful ignorance of the same, accustom us to a brutality not always reserved for brutes. What these arguments have going for them is power, not novelty.

Still, vegetarianism has a way of getting mixed up with other politics, of amassing all kinds of arguments around itself. Vegetarianism tends in our time to correlate with left or liberal politics, to prevail more among teachers than stockbrokers, to sport (leather) Birkenstocks more often than Kenneth Coles. By the same token, a place like New York’s Angelo and Maxie’s steakhouse (“Horrifying Vegetarians since 1982″) tends to attract a rather conservative clientele, sells Cigar Aficionado and has refused to recognize the union its kitchen staff has formed. National Review refers to vegetarians as “vegemaniacs.” It seems it was ever thus: Shelley was an atheist and an advocate of free love as well as a vegetarian; Tolstoy wanted to reform not only diet but Christianity and Russian agriculture; nineteenth-century animal-protection societies were founded by abolitionists and suffragists. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell expressed his annoyance at vegetarians for leading the working class to associate socialism with “food cranks.”

As usual, Orwell, while cranky himself, is on to something. Ethical vegetarianism, the kind that aspires to reduce not only cholesterol but animal misery, can easily become elitist, a form of invidious distinction. In Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, Elizabeth Costello’s main adversary is her son’s wife, Norma, a philosopher of mind who happens (like her husband) to teach at the college where Costello has come to lecture. “The ban on meat,” Norma says, “is only an extreme form of dietary ban; and a dietary ban is a quick, simple way for an elite group to define itself.” The bleeding heart rather than the purple heart is worn as a badge of merit. But such a reservation only complicates, it hardly eliminates, the issue. To espouse abolitionism may have stoked the moral vanity of New England’s freethinking and Unitarian elite, but that does not persuade us that their cause was not a just one.

It would be comforting to think of vegetarianism’s claim to expand our sympathy as something it had in its favor. But the comforts J.M. Coetzee offers tend to be colder than that. Elizabeth Costello is a great champion of sympathy, which “allows us at times to share the being of another.” William Alcott too, as excerpted in Ethical Vegetarianism, wants us to open the floodgates of sympathy; to him the world seems “like one mighty slaughterhouse–one grand school for the suppression of every kind, and tender, and brotherly feeling.” Well, one does not go to school for no reason, and an excess of sympathy and knowledge would no more aid the meat industry (the United States’ second-largest manufacturing concern) than would the inclusion of feet, tail, fur and eyes in each package of ground round. We do not want to think about the source of these or other commodities, to remember what Marx said about capital coming into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

Similarly vivid passages aside, just what is said in The Lives of Animals is not of primary interest; most of it has been said before. What is interesting is who says what, and Coetzee’s intimations of why. The Lives of Animals does not describe any animals at all–what is farther from the jungle than the university?–and one begins to suspect that its title refers mostly to the animal nature of its human characters, the mute passions that knock them about. Indeed, why should it be that the mouthpiece for vegetarianism is a dramatically aging older woman who lives alone with her cats? Why should her fiercest opponent be that woman’s daughter-in-law, a mother of two and a fierce and vigorous rationalist? Coetzee–not for nothing is he an admirer of D.H. Lawrence–makes us see the two women’s intellectual contest as also a contest over the man who is son to one and husband to the other.

Most troubling, however, is the association, here as in Age of Iron, of a scalding degree of compassion with a figure who is isolated, infertile and soon dead. Does Elizabeth Costello rage Lear-like at the world’s wrong because she fears she is about to go to the grave without her child’s love? Or is it for herself, as it is for Age of Iron‘s Mrs. Curren, with whom she shares a great deal more than the initials EC? In that book, a late, terrible access of sympathy–for the homeless, for the children of apartheid–seems to come at the cost of one’s own life, as if no one with children still to raise and a job still to hold down, and even air still to breathe, could endure such knowledge as sympathy affords. Elizabeth Costello cannot think of the quantum and the quality of animal suffering at human hands without thinking of us all as “participants in a crime of stupefying proportions.” Perhaps, her son concedes; but what good does protest do? Does compassion wound us to no purpose? The Lives of Animals ends, rather severely, with Elizabeth Costello’s son soothing her with words we might say to an animal being put down: “‘There, there,’ he whispers in her ear. ‘There, there. It will soon be over.'”