Stephan Eirik Clark's lively and funny debut novel is set in the world of food flavorists sparring over an artificial sweetener. It's a seemingly esoteric premise, but "Sweetness #9" convincingly argues that food may be the last truly mass culture we have.
Think of it: Our tastes in movies, TV and books may have splintered, but supermarkets and chain restaurants are great levelers; only with great effort can we avoid the sugars, dyes and marketing messages they shovel into us. As the daughter of the novel's hero asks after spotting Ronald McDonald during a fast-food run, "What does it say that I learned about him before I'd ever heard about Jesus?"
If that seems overstated, it's satire's job to give reality the artificial shimmer and warp of a funhouse mirror, and Clark, who teaches at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, does that wittily. The story opens in 1973 as the narrator, David, begins working at a firm that's testing the sweetener of the title on rats and monkeys. The rodents grow lethargic, the primates fat, and though David suspects a conspiracy to cover up the chemical's downsides, it speeds its way to FDA approval. "As long as a powdered beverage didn't eat away at your flesh, or a candy bar didn't instantaneously inflate your feet to four times their normal size," David explains, "it was considered safe."
Fast-forward to 1998. David's silence has made him a wealthy executive, but the chemical's side effects have wormed into his household: His wife's weight ticks up while his son's vocabulary is suddenly bereft of verbs. David's rebellious daughter tips him to a report that threatens to expose the chemical's flaws, and as Thanksgiving approaches, supermarkets become the target of eco-terrorists eager to prove that what's in the freezer aisle can literally kill you.
A successful satirist has to sustain a tone that can land jokes in a variety of contexts, and Clark cleverly highlights the absurdities of David's household and flavorists' work. "A flavorist needs to be able to forecast where a culture will be so that he can know what it will want to taste when it gets there," he writes, and David's colleagues' strenuous efforts to educate themselves about American culture underscore that point, interweaving comedy and reality.
But applying the same light tone to domestic terrorism and to David's boss' history as a flavorist for Adolf Hitler — well, that can feel as artificial and unappealing as a clump of day-old spray cheese. Clark is critiquing David's (and our) complicity in a slow-moving health crisis, but blending comedy and mass tragedy makes the message sometimes feel ungainly and crude. That shortcoming, though, reveals the difficulty of the noble challenge "Sweetness #9" takes on: What message, delivered in what tone, will get us to see how we're doing ourselves in?
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Phoenix.