To the gods and ghouls that he cooks for, Rupert Wong is little more than a mouthy piece of meat. At best, the titular character of Cassandra Khaw's gloriously gory series hardly registers as anything more than an annoyance. At worst, he's viewed as a tool to be used up, until he can only serve as fuel and food for divinity.
Part of Abaddon Books's shared “Gods and Monsters” universe, the sequel to Khaw's 2015 novella Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef, Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth plucks main-character Rupert Wong from the familiarity of his life in Kuala Lumpur, dropping him headfirst into a conflict between some heavy hitters of the Greek pantheon and members of a mysterious organization known as Vanquis. Persona non grata in his hometown due to events in the previous book that lead members of his own pantheon to view him as a traitor, Rupert is removed from everything that is familiar and is transplanted, rather abruptly, to a dreary London neighborhood that seems downright lousy with Greek gods and figures from other European mythologies.
There are two huge things that Cassandra Khaw does in Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth that make the book—and the characters that inhabit it—too interesting to walk away from. First, there's what drew me to Khaw's writing in the first place: how she writes about flesh and food in a way that makes reading about the go-to nourishment of ghouls and gods a chilling, but captivating experience. Then there's the way that Khaw writes the remains of the Greek pantheon struggling to gain a foothold in a world that has largely written them off as obsolete—and whose new gods are far less open to sharing.
Let's start by talking about the role that food and flesh play in this book.
Cassandra Khaw is maybe one of the few authors in the world that can write a book that at one point describes, in detail, the processes necessary for efficiently butchering a human body and still manage to leave me with simultaneous, conflicting feelings of fear and hunger. I wanted a shower and a snack after reading this book for the first time, and that's part of the beauty of Khaw's writing.
We're gifted with descriptions of Rupert's technique as he prepares andouille sausages from the small intestines of massacred men, and how he prepares the torso of a deceased porn star for an audience of hungry ghouls. Even the way that Khaw describes Rupert's ghoul friend Fariz doing something as mundane as eating ramen is portrayed with language that makes it hard to stomach: “He lances the egg and it belches yolk onto his noodles, a punctured blister bleeding pus.”
And please, don't get me started on what happens when one of the new gods on the scene takes down Jack the Ripper. Khaw depicts him being consumed by a goddess, describing him being broken down to muscle and marrow as he's turned into food. Thinking back, that might well have been one of the most disturbing moments in the entire book, because of how it shakes Rupert more than anything he's seen so far.
It's also a moment that kind of makes the book.
Another thing that I found fascinating about the way food and flesh are treated in this book is that for the most part at this point in his life Rupert Wong thinks nothing of preparing a human corpse for a meal since the alternative is almost always his death. In fact, at the start of Ends of the Earth, when Rupert's opponent in a truly gruesome satire of shows like Iron Chef is dispatched after losing, Rupert's main thoughts center on relief that he's not going to be next on the menu—and disgust that he's going to have to personally prepare for his boss the body that is.
At the end of the first section of How to Serve Man: On Cannibalism, Sex, Sacrifice, & the Nature of Eating (2012), author Gary Allen describes cannibalism as “this most meaningful of relationships,” following a series of questions that try to imply that human carnivores are always lurching one step closer to cannibalism in an attempt to fully satisfy their hunger. Rupert Wong would probably be the last person to claim that the path to gastronomic self-actualization lies in cannibalism and “getting closer to one's food.” I think that if he did think in-depth about what he was doing and who he was cooking, he couldn't do his actual job. After all, there are no ethics in human consumption. As the reader, however, we come face-to-text with descriptions of bodies turned into meals in a way that doesn't allow us to distance ourselves from the fact that our mostly human narrator is cutting up and cooking other humans without appearing to have so much as a care in the world.
Rupert on the other hand, has to distance himself from what he's cooking or else he won't be able to work. In the book's ninth chapter, following a massacre at the soup kitchen which the Greek gods run in order to get easier access to their favorite food source, Rupert tells us that “It's easier when you don't think of them as people” as he and the staff prepare body after body for food. It's easier and safer for him to keep on cooking, to see the bodies before him as anonymous ingredients, than to think about who they started as. And, as we see at the start of the book, Rupert's self-preservation instincts, though slow to kick in once he's running his mouth, mean that he's not going to stop doing what keeps him from becoming obsolete.
Part of what makes Rupert Wong an amazing character is his pragmatic approach to dealing with the fact that he's always at risk of winding up on the very menu he's prepared. In a world where anyone—even gods—can wind up in someone else's belly without a moment's notice, personal distance is a must.
In addition to her approach to exocannibalism in these pantheons, Khaw's interpretation of the Greek pantheon—a struggling collection of gods and assorted immortals that don't hold even half of the power that they once did—is an innovative writing choice. Khaw's take on the pantheon and its assorted hangers-on is like almost nothing I've ever read before. Under her pen, these gods are monstrous and they see the chaos they've caused, by striving to cling on to as much power as possible, as simple collateral damage. They share same view of humans as Rupert's boss back in Malaysia: most are little more than walking, talking Happy Meals.
At one point, the goddess Ananke (who keeps elderly women as pets) actually says that she prefers to think of their soup kitchen scheme as “cultivating foie gras.” You know, because to them, the homeless people they fatten up to feed off of aren't much different from ducks. The gods and ghouls we see in Ends of the Earth appear to take the point of view that humans aren’t people. In the same way that we humans tend to view certain kinds of animals—the specific animals change depending on where the person is from—as food, not friends. Margaret Visser’s The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners (1999) posits that one reason that societies around the world have found cannibalism to be at odds with their beliefs is that “other people are better taken as allies, or even as necessary evils, than as nutrients”. However, food is beneath classification as allies or enemies. It is beneath notice beyond how it tastes and where it came from—because the only thing food exists for is consumption.
That attitude is one of several things that makes the assorted gods that Rupert comes into contact with in London so awful. Khaw doesn't romanticize or soften one ounce of their unpredictable and unfair natures, and her gods casually commit and condone atrocities as an everyday occurrence.
The fear of and fascination with cannibalism is present in stories around the world—from folktales to mythology to works that make up notable examples of capital-l Literature. Two notable examples of cannibalism occur in Greek mythology. First is the story of Cronus eating his divine children in order to consolidate power. Goya’s painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” (1819-23) sensationalizes the whole ordeal of Cronus’s cannibalism, as he “swallowed as each came forth from the womb to his mother’s knees” in order to stop them from rebelling against him in their adulthood. No chewing necessary.
Then there’s the story of Polyphemus in the Odyssey, the cyclops who is known for his voracious appetite for human flesh—and for the way in which he is eventually outsmarted by Odysseus himself. The story doesn’t skimp on the gory descriptions as Odysseus watches in horror as two of his men are eaten in front of him:
[…] with a sudden clutch he gripped up two of my men at once and dashed them down upon the ground as though they had been puppies. Their brains were shed upon the ground, and the earth was wet with their blood. Then he tore them limb from limb and supped upon them. He gobbled them up like a lion in the wilderness, flesh, bones, marrow, and entrails, without leaving anything uneaten. (The Odyssey, Book 9)
In both of these stories, cannibalism inspires disgust because of how “primitive” the association is. In Bill Schutt’s book Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History (2017), classicist Mary Knight argues, “The story may thus support cannibalism as a part of the ancient Greek view of a ‘primitive’ past vs. the ‘civilized’ present. Greeks came to see themselves as different, calling all non-Greeks ‘savages’—people who may have continued eating people.” Knight argues that the Greek cultural prohibition against cannibalism derives from Zeus’s refusal to follow in his father’s footsteps and cannibalize his own young. (Though Zeus does swallow his first wife Metis in order to keep a prophecy from coming true.)
For the Greeks, cannibalism and man-eating were signs of the Other in their world (in the same way that European explorers used claims of cannibalism to dehumanize indigenous people in the Caribbean and Pacific). So what then does it mean for Khaw to return the Greek gods to their primordial past by having them consume human flesh without a care?
Throughout the book, we see signs that war is being waged and that not all of the Greeks are necessarily on the winning side. Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth is like American Gods (2001) cranked up to eleven. Dionysus is dead in Los Angeles, the God of Being Missing literally takes no prisoners … and Demeter turns out to have been masterminding most of the events during Rupert's time in London in a bid for power, but also in an attempt to rescue her daughter. All of the other Greek gods are frustrating at best, and I found myself actively rooting for the mass demise that I was certain would happen by the end of the book. I was here for a smackdown and, thankfully, Khaw delivered big time.
In fact, Demeter and Persephone are the only two members of the Greek pantheon that I could ultimately bring myself to care about. While many recent takes on Greek mythology have redone the Persephone/Hades myth to frame the relationship as more romantic—and remove Demeter entirely from the equation—Khaw confronts the original creepiness of the myth and then updates that, addressing how things would work in a world where Persephone still spends half of her time in the Underworld, but Hades no longer has the ability to move between the worlds.
In a nutshell, Khaw manages to make the mythology even more messed up than it already was; but then fixes things by having Demeter wreck her own pantheon in order to save her daughter. She's not that much different from her fellow Greek gods in terms of how she tends to see humans as fuel or tools, but she manages to get Rupert on her side without even really trying—and in her own way, she seems to see him as a knight in chef’s whites rather than as simply talkative meat. He puts himself at risk for Demeter and her daughter, making deals that he honestly didn’t have to in order to make right a wrong that’s far older than he is. Rupert Wong may not immediately register as a hero (even he doesn't see himself as one), but by the end of Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth he's clearly the most heroic figure in the book. Cannibal cuisine n' all.