Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark

Every day the news tells us that we as a society are getting fatter. Stories about the ways in which American children are failing educationally pop up like mushrooms. Pharmaceutical commercials constantly interrupt our television shows and more of us are medicated against depression and anxiety than ever before in history. There are an abundance of ideas to explain why we are so much fatter, dumber, unhappier, and less engaged than previous generations The fact that we eat and drink so many prepackaged foods, which are chock full of substances created in a lab to try and appeal to our ideas of taste, color, smell, and texture, as well as our desire for convenience, is certainly something we can point to that is very different in our lives than it was for our grandparents and great-grandparents. Could that in fact be the culprit for so many of our woes? Stephan Eirik Clark's debut satirical novel, Sweetness #9, suggests, through one hapless narrator, that it could indeed.

David Leveraux is an apprentice flavorist with an enormous food chemical company in the early 1970s. His company is working on getting FDA approval for a new sugar substitute called Sweetness #9 and David, with his newly minted master's degree, is running clinical trials on rats fed large concentrations of the chemical. His non-communicative lab mate is running similar trials on chimpanzees. David is thrilled to be on the cusp of the introduction of this cutting edge creation until he starts noticing some disturbing trends in his rats and in the chimps next door. The company is unconcerned with results as long as "the Nine" doesn't cause cancer and when David tries to bring his concerns to higher ups, he loses his job, leading to a downward spiral that jeopardizes his marriage and ultimately sees him land in a mental institution.

Fast forward twenty years. It seems as if David has pulled his life together, now the father of two teenagers and a respected food chemist at another food chemical company with whose founder he is incredibly close. But life is not as happy and well adjusted as it seems. Sweetness #9 and red dye #40 have become ubiquitous and David starts to see the same sorts of problems in his wife and children that he once documented in his rats. His wife, Betty, is heavier than she's ever been and is constantly fighting her weight, guzzling diet soda all day long. His daughter, Priscilla, is depressed. She's become a vegan, like her best friend, and is determined to uncover the deceit in the food industry a la Woodward and Bernstein, starting with her father. Son Ernest, named for David's mentor and boss, has stopped speaking using verbs, communicating in single words or short phrases only. He is perpetually hungry, craving frozen, processed, and luridly colored foods by the ton. David himself is alternately afflicted with a fear of exposure for his role in Sweetness #9's FDA approval and with apathy and anxiety.

Written by David as a rough memoir years after the events of the novel, the story is a scathing satire of the food industry and the society that demands a certain smell, taste, and color in it's food but doesn't want the consequences of those demands.  Sugar makes us fat so instead of foregoing it and the sweet flavor it imparts, we must have a non-sugar alternative with the same taste.  The Leveraux family is certainly a mirror of America's growing problem, something the novel calls the "American Condition." But in addition to being an indictment of the way we eat, the way we live, and the drive for progress even at the expense of our health, mental and physical, this is a novel of family and relationship. It is a call for authenticity and honesty in all parts of our lives. David Leveraux is a conflicted character. His misguided attempts to follow his own conscience are bumbling. And if it's hard to understand why he allows his family to continue to ingest so many of the chemicals he himself has long had reservations about, especially in light of their unhappiness, it becomes clear it is because he is a pitiable and ineffective father and husband. As everything is from David's perspective, the other characters are only explored in relation to him and so are less well developed and well-rounded than his own character is.   But he faithfully relates his failures with those he loves and his inability to communicate meaningfully with them.

The timing of the novel starts off slowly but crescendos towards a very quick ending, one that refuses to wrap-up many plot threads, which may frustrate some readers. The jump in time from the 1970s to the late 90s happens with just a quick skim of the less important intervening years. In addition to the main time line, there are brief mentions of David's youth and his mentor, Ernst's, role in feeding Hitler during WWII. The former, sparsely used, sets David up as a man slightly out of step with modern America and the latter becomes a major plot point only late in the novel, giving it an uneven importance. Although there are a few stumbles or rushes here or there, this is a thoroughly engrossing read. The moral conundrum of what David's ethical responsibility is, combined with the sly social commentary is like the subtle chemical combinations that food flavorists use to make that dinner out of a box more palatable, bringing disparate things together to create a completely different perception of the whole on the part of the reader. And although I had already given up diet soda, after reading this, I find myself avidly reading the ingredients list on anything I pull from the grocery store shelves, much more conscious of just what I am putting into my body and into my family's bodies.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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