by Stephan Eirik Clark
Little, Brown and Company, $26.00
Publishes August 19, 2014
The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.
The innocent white packet spilling forth bright-pink sweetener on the cover of Stephan Eirik Clark’s debut novel, Sweetness #9, seems too insubstantial to bear the weight of an entire narrative; but as the book's epigraph from Ronald Reagan unnervingly notes, "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." The story of one artificial sweetener proves to be far less innocent than appearances might suggest.
Narrated by middle-aged flavor chemist David Leveraux, the novel begins with a long flashback to the protagonist’s heady first days in the animal testing labs of a flavor company in the 1970s. Artificial flavorings and additives were on the verge of a major boom, and clean-cut, conservative Leveraux is anxious to be a part of the scientific revolution of the American diet. Scarcely has he commenced his first job in the industry, however, than young Leveraux notices that the rats he’s testing appear to be having bizarre reactions to the artificial sweetener, Sweetness #9, being administered to them. Faced with unwillingness on the part of his superiors to report any result other than cancerous lesions in the rats, Leveraux must quickly decide how to act on what he’s seen -- and once he’s acted, how to manage the fallout to his budding career.
Years later, Leveraux, who has managed to follow a fairly conventional path as a flavorist despite the early blotch on his resume, must once again confront the disturbing and well-hidden truths he witnessed during his first months in a lab, and which he’s effectively forgotten about since. Though Sweetness #9 has, in the intervening decades, become pervasive in packaged food products in America, there are sudden grumblings of unpleasant health risks and a corporate cover-up, and Leveraux’s own outwardly perfect family may be at risk.
The pitch-perfect first half of the novel demonstrates that Clark is not only an adept stylist -- the pompous, slightly stilted tones of his narrator vividly evoke Leveraux’s stuffy, square conservative British expat -- but possesses a flair for pacing. The plot gently escalates from a simmer to a raging boil, gripping the reader with an ominous, creeping sense of danger; comparisons to Don Delillo’s White Noise aptly signal Clark’s ability to, like Delillo, cast fearful question onto the most basic and unavoidable structures of our daily modern lives (and hint at the deft homage to Delillo’s masterpiece built into the plot’s final turns).
Clark ultimately struggles to handle this build-up without sliding into an anticlimactic denouement, as plot turns begin to feel slightly unhinged and narration looser and rambling. With tensions at a fever pitch, it’s hard to feel satisfied with the ambling pace at which he moves toward the conclusion of the previously taut novel.
Sweetness #9 may falter at points, but it remains a solid entry in the tradition of literary fiction critiques of American consumerist culture -- a tradition of which Clark seems acutely aware. His prose is salted with references to his forebears (like a particularly on-the-nose allusion to the famous parenthetical “(picnic, lightning)” from Nabokov’s Lolita), which sometimes suggest a touch of creative insecurity. But if his first novel shows anything, it’s that Clark has little to be insecure about.
What other reviewers think:
Kirkus: "Clever writing balances out the conspiracy theories, but the fictional treatment of this issue leaves readers wondering about the facts."
Publishers Weekly: "The energetic mixture of laughter and revulsion, routine and invention, outrage and dismay, fact and fiction, skewer a food industry that provides neither food nor sustenance and damages us in ways we are just beginning to fathom."
Who wrote it?
Stephan Eirik Clark has written a short story collection entitled Vladimir’s Mustache. Sweetness #9 is his debut novel. Born in West Germany, he grew up in England and the United States. Clark teaches at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
Who will read it?
Fans of dark comedy and dystopian satire. Also, readers who suspect there is a vast corporate conspiracy to poison consumers with artificial food additives.
“When I say it all began with monkeys, I don’t mean to issue another rallying cry in the ongoing Culture Wars. I only mean to say it began in the Animal Testing labs at Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark, to which I was shown after filing my thesis on the biophysics of brie and being graduated from the food science program at Rutgers University.”
“As my breathing returned to normal, I found the courage to look, to really look at the monkey directly in front of me. It was akin to staring at a total lunar eclipse; it filled me with such dread and awe. You see, after almost four months of The Nine and all the bananas he could take, this monkey was pot-bellied and thick-limbed, sitting there with an oddly swollen face. His breathing slowed, became shallow. He looked through me, lost in an unblinking daze.”
Rating, out of ten:
7. Clark’s debut loses steam as it nears the conclusion, but his smart, clever prose and the thoughtful, terrifying questions he raises about how Americans eat now make the full read worth savoring.