Written in the three weeks after the September 11th attacks, Snowball’s Chance is an outrageous and unauthorised companion to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which exiled pig Snowball returns to the farm, takes charge, and implements a new world order of untrammeed capitalism. Orwell’s ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’ has morphed into a new rallying cry: ‘All animals are born equal – what they become is their own affair.
At first Snowball’s regime prospers: heated stalls, running water, and a window for each animal. The farm moves away from its agricultural economy as Snowball and his team of educated goats recreate Animal Farm as Animal Fair, replete with citizen performers and criminal sideshows.
A brilliant political satire and literary parody, John Reed’s Snowball’s Chance caused an uproar on publication in 2002, drawing the ire of Christopher Hitchens among others, spurring a hostile response from the literary executor of the Orwell estate, and sparking debate about parody and canonical writing. Now, a decade later, with America in wars on many fronts, readers can judge anew the vision of Reed’s satirical masterpiece.
Animal Farm is one of those allegorical stories that, because of its detail, its lack of subtlety, and its age, is treated almost as a joke, and also as an excellent text to teach from. I suspect that ubiquity is part of what inspired Reed to write Snowball’s Chance; the foreword mischaracterises Orwell’s original text as an attack on the security state, rather than explicitly on the Stalinist Soviet state (perhaps confusing it with 1984?) and Reed’s work rather signally fails to engage with Orwell’s original. But how so…?
The title character, Snowball, is of course driven from the farm in the original story. Reed has him return, with a whole new way of life with him. But of course, this isn’t the way of life Animal Farm‘s Snowball – or Trotsky – might have espoused; rather, it is market capitalism, it is monetarism, and it is Western-style democracy. So, somehow, Reed has to get the animals from Soviet socialism to American capitalism; how does he do this? Simple. Ignoring the Soviet roots of his setting. Reed simply treats it as a place with no political organisation outside, perhaps, a lax totalitarianism. Furthermore, Reed goes far further in parody than Orwell ever did; Snowball’s Chance sees the animals building and hiring in builders, plumbing, and generating electricity. Reed even goes so far as to build religion into his model, religion espoused by a bird named Moses. The parody loses all force in its setting by self-parodying; Orwell may have been transparent, but Reed is simply ridiculous.
The characters are no better, by virtue of being essentially nonexistent. In Animal Farm, the animals had personalities. In Snowball’s Chance, they not only have no individual personalities, but are characterised by species whilst also being very clearly analogous to religious and racial groups. Even Snowball doesn’t have a character, simply serving as Reed’s focus for the parody; this frustrating lack of engagement with any meaningful approach to empathy is, perhaps, extolled in certain literary-experimentalist circles, but for what is attempting to be biting satire, it instead just takes any force out of the bite, defanging the dog.
And finally, Snowball’s Chance‘s plot. Reed diverges from Orwell and then reconverges with him here; first, the complete lack of any meaningful historical pattern to the early book, the bizarre and frankly silly approach Reed takes to make Animal Farm turn into the United States of America. Once again, Reed voluntarily loses a lot of power here; whereas Orwell avoided charicature of events, Reed revels in it, wholeheartedly embracing that. Then, he begins to follow more closely the history around 9/11 – but without any real empathy for the terrorists; for a book trying to point out links between US foreign policy and hatred of the US, it has a tendency to boil it down to just hatred and religion, while also ignoring the rationale behind US decisions.
Snowball’s Chance caused massive controversy when it was released; but a parody-and-satire that so badly missed the mark deserved to sink, forgotten, without a trace.