The tension between wanting to enjoy what we have and finding ourselves unable to do so is the subject of Sweetness #9, the first novel by Stephan Eirik Clark. David Levereaux is a young graduate of the food science program at Rutgers who has started work at Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark, “an industry giant” in food and flavor development. David narrates his story, which begins in 1973 and proceeds to the present day. His time in Goldstein’s animal testing labs introduces him to Sweetness #9, “The Nine,” an artificial sweetener not unlike saccharine or aspartame. A series of tests performed on lab rats and monkeys awakens David to the possibility that Sweetness #9 is more harmful than anyone has yet disclosed—after several weeks of exposure to the sweetener, one of David’s rats, which he has named Louie, becomes lethargic and refuses to complete a maze test. The lab’s monkeys soon grow obese and refuse to do anything but watch television. After informing a superior of his suspicions about Sweetness #9, David returns to his lab only to find that each of the animals has been replaced with a new, thin, healthy imposter.
Through all of this and the events that follow, which land our flavorist briefly in a mental hospital, David contextualizes himself and his story within the political state of affairs in America and abroad. “It was the summer of 1973 and I too was doing my part to win the Cold War, for if anything other than an ICBM could clear the Berlin Wall, it was the taste of a smuggled Ho Ho or Ding Dong—flavors that suggested a life freer and more limitless than any possible under the grey yoke of Communism.” At first these asides, which demonstrate a sympathy for Richard Nixon, an admiration of Ronald Reagan, and a willingness to invest the hamburger and the Hot Pocket with national pride, seem absurd and implausible. Who really thinks that way? But David Levereaux was born in Britain and “brought to America while [he was] still in short pants”; he has been “a student of the culture since he was a young boy.” For him, the American predilection for vanilla flavoring was not a given, it was a unique characteristic of the whole sociopolitical mélange in which he potted himself like a bonsai in Brooklyn.
David’s embrace of the right-of-center zeitgeist, which occasionally feels ham-fisted, explains the novel’s periodic, non sequitur digs at feminism. When I first read them, I wondered what inspired both Clark and David Mitchell to slip in comments about the supposed silliness of a movement predicated on equality for all. Mitchell, in his most recent novel, The Bone Clocks, which I reviewed for The Rumpus, seems to find himself clever when he can create a Dworkinian caricature and tear her down all in one paragraph. The vaguely anti-feminist social conservatism of Clark’s narrator, however, is of a piece with his whole clumsy universe of reliable certainties and faith. “Yes, asking him to lead a field trip was out of the question,” David says of his coworker at FlavAmerica, the flavoring firm that hires him and allows him to become a higher-up in the surprisingly interesting world of flavor development. “It would be like asking a leader of the women’s movement to babysit your kids. Even if I knew the answer would be yes, I wouldn’t be able to sit through the explication leading up to it.” Some are tougher to chalk up to skillful impersonation than others.
As David’s career progresses, along with his desperate efforts to have children with his hapless wife Betty, Clark treats the reader to beautiful discussions of bouquets of flavor that contrast with descriptions of the drab, ultra-processed foods they eat at home. The novel is admirably attendant to the sensual, evocative powers that flavors and odors have in our lives. In that way, it is reminiscent of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which tells the story of Grenouille, a perfumer born with no body scent who kills virgins in search of the perfect odor. Süskind’s and Clark’s novels are a delight to read because both are concerned with painting the sensory kaleidoscope that we all experience but rarely notice.
The more analytical side of Sweetness #9 owes a debt to another story: David Foster Wallace’s “Mister Squishy,” published in the collection Oblivion. In it, Wallace describes a focus group’s encounter with Felonies!, a new chocolate snack cake. The story, in typical Wallace fashion, quickly rebounds from discussions of the minutiae of artificial food production to the serpentine methods of marketing professionals. We are left with a picture of the awkward application of systematized analysis to something as apparently unruly as human taste and experience. All the while, a man armed with a machine gun uses suction cups to climb the outside of the skyscraper in which the focus group is seated. The story does not end with an explosive conflict, but rather with a refusal to resolve the impending catastrophe that has dominated the preceding pages.
Sweetness #9 is guided by this sense of imminent doom. The artificial sweetener comes to dominate the landscape of American food, and its effect is destructive. We get the impression that things are acutely unsustainable, both in David’s family, with his militant bleeding-heart daughter and his monosyllabic son, and in American culture generally. The dramatic power of this device is profound. At several moments, however, I felt frustrated that there seemed to be little criticism of the idea that an artificial sweetener could in fact be the cause of all of society’s ills. To be fair, David’s experience is a testament to that: even after the Levereauxes give up the red dyes and pink crystals that they used to consume, they are still faced with many of the problems that dogged them before. The ending of the novel does not whitewash this, and that is a good thing.
I found myself wishing, however, that Clark had paid more attention to the nostalgia that moves us away from the artificial and toward the natural. This is another manifestation of the fantasy that causes us to hate our cellphones, or to long for a life of foraging and dowsing rods while we sip from supposedly cancerous Nalgene bottles. But it is hard to ignore Clark’s deft, economical prose. Early in the novel, David and Betty try and fail to have sex. They reassure themselves that they love each other and that they will not become the people their parents were. “And then we turned out the lights, and our despair recaptured us in the dark.” The line is breathtaking and the novel is full of them. That sentence alone would be reason enough to read Sweetness #9, even if it weren’t as funny, smart, and entertaining as it is.