Quinn Dalton’s recent collection Bulletproof Girl contains eleven stories about women in peril. Not physical peril in the tied to the railroad tracks “save me Indiana Jones” way, but social and emotional peril. Each story is a snapshot, a day or two in the life of a woman who has come up against something in her life that is big and hard to move. My favorite story was “Lennie Remembers the Angels” about an elderly woman who is paranoid about her neighbors but turns a blind eye to her son’s transgressions. There is a physicality to her language in this story: damp heat, dark apartments and overpowering food smells. Like “Lennie,” several of the stories in the collection could be mistaken for chapters in a novel; they aren’t self-contained. Dalton is very good at fleshing out her characters, and we know their individual histories. As she leads her protagonists through their hard times, we are given stories that are as character-driven as they are plot-driven. The long title story broadens the themes the Dalton explores in the rest of the collection. Instead of one woman, we have three: Emery, May and Celeste, three generations from the same family, all at difficult crossroads and alternately comforting and pitying one another. Emery is smarting from the loss of her boyfriend, her mother May has been driven to odd obsessive behavior ever since her husband moved out, and old Celeste the grandmother is vibrant, but will not sympathize with her daughter, and instead takes them all on a macabre errand.
At one point as I was reading Aimee Bender’s remarkable new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I was eating the food that is, to me, more delicious and comforting than almost anything else in the world: shredded cheddar-jack cheese melted on Tostitos tortilla chips. I stick a pan of them under the broiler and let the cheese bubble and harden a bit; the chips get just a little burnt so the whole thing is a crunchy, salty miracle. That same week, I devoured the very first lobster roll I’ve ever had, crisp buttery bread butting up against the cool, liberally spiced meat. Later, there was a batch of sangria made to salvage an overly sweet bottle of red wine, saved by some fresh lemon juice, tart nectarines and the strawberries that have just come into season. There were frozen pierogies. There were overcooked eggs cloaked with Kraft singles.
What I ate while absorbed in the pages of this book seemed to matter more than with most others, because Bender’s latest is really about the intimate experience of food. Her protagonist, Rose Edelstein, has an excruciatingly sensitive palate. When her mother bakes her the titular lemon cake (with chocolate frosting) for her ninth birthday, Rose realizes she has the burdensome ability to taste people’s feelings in the food they cook. Behind her mother’s whirling energy and loving gestures, Rose tastes her emptiness, so bitter she can barely choke it down:
[T]he goodness of the ingredients—the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons—seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary…
On the surface, it’s a natural premise for an author whose odd, twisty stories have featured a man with a giant hole in his stomach, people who have pumpkins for heads, and a husband who returns home from war without his lips. But it seemed to me at first more like the seed of one of those fantastical tales than a premise that could sustain a longer narrative. But actually, it does even more than that: Attached to a gorgeous, devastating coming-of-age story, Bender’s descriptions of how feelings and flavors mingle manages to be some of the most sumptuous, original—and really, personal—food writing I’ve ever read.
Ultimately, it was food writing—mouth-watering restaurant reviews, travelogues, narrative recipes, profiles of dishes and the chefs responsible for them—along with (somewhat embarrassingly) the televised insistence of Anthony Bourdain, that made me reverse thirteen years of vegetarianism last summer. I’m still not used to looking over a menu and understanding that the whole thing is open to me. I didn’t change my diet as part of any kind of manifesto or major ethical shift; I did it because I got addicted to reading and learning about food, and I wanted to know what it was like to eat an oyster. I wanted to taste the foods whose aromas that taunted me. Having grown up in a kosher home before I cut out meat entirely, there was a long list of things I’d never even tried. Changing my rules changed my sense of the world, and of my place in it.
So maybe I was particularly good audience for a story so invested in the secret life of food. But as so many of us become obsessed with the story and singularity of what’s on our plates, the literalness of Rose’s tastes really speaks to the complicated life of a human appetite. Read with a certain mindset, the book can seem to portray a sort of locavore dystopia, subtly pointing out that we might not really want to know everything about everything we put in our mouths. Thankfully, Bender only hints at this ethical dimension of Rose’s abilities. She’s also not really interested in the rather fascinating implications of what could be understood as an eating disorder, barely describing the state of Rose’s body, or the character’s own sense of it. Instead, Bender cares about how we live with food, and through it: the subtle dramas behind a toasted bagel overwhelmed by cream cheese, the mind-bending Neapolitan pizza from the swanky new restaurant, a stale bag of chips, a berry crisp warm from the oven.
I couldn’t help thinking: If I was like Rose, the juicy earthiness of the organic heirloom tomatoes I excitedly bought at the farmer’s market would matter less than the fact that they ended up tossed in some pasta thrown together by a frazzled, underemployed writer. I’m happy not to know the precise taste of disillusionment, but weeks after reading this novel, I’m finding Bender’s rendering of the possibility hard to shake.
While I’m obsessed with food, I don’t really cook. For years, I didn’t even have a working oven. I love the idea of cooking: I bookmark recipes regularly and with optimism, and whenever I get it together to actually make something—peanut butter brownies for my boyfriend’s birthday, gnocchi with summer vegetables, a simple sauce made from cream, vegetable stock, lemon zest and capers—I’m overly impressed with myself. Mostly I eat overpriced takeout, and otherwise rely on jarred sauce, frozen burritos from Trader Joe’s, Indian food that comes in a little silver pouch and like magic, needs only two minutes in the microwave. While I eat, I watch the Food Network. I read the articles and passionate blogs about how cooking is so easy—and so worth the pay-off!—and I nod my head in agreement. I mean to do it. I aspire to do it. And then I order Thai.
To avoid ingesting insights along with her meals, Rose learns to get by mostly on vending machine food, snacks produced on mechanized assembly lines and “made by no one.” But her powerful taste buds can still suss out the distinct essences imbued by different factories. As for produce, “[B]y the time I was twelve, I could distinguish an orange slice from California from an orange slice from Florida in under five seconds because California’s was rounder-tasting.” A few minor characters in the novel recognize Rose’s usefulness: a conniving high school pal has her over to taste things she cooks, in the hopes that Rose can decode feelings she can’t identify for herself (mostly, she wants to know if her affection for a particular boy is the real thing). Later, a woman offers to hire her to decipher the emotions of troubled children. But Rose isn’t interested in parlaying her skill into a career as some kind of food psychic, handy as that might be. She doesn’t feel superior or special; mostly, she’s just jealous of other people’s obliviousness.
The food that tastes good to Rose has less to do with perfection than honesty. One cafeteria worker at her school makes pizza she can tolerate: “She was sad, true, but the sadness was so real and so known in it that I found the tomato sauce and the melted cheese highly edible, even good.” After she graduates high school, Rose starts eating with more focus, searching beyond quality for what can only be called authenticity. At an Iranian restaurant, she finds “such a rich grief in the lamb shank” that it “was like having a good cry, the clearing of the air after weight has been held.” A dim-sum place “knew its rage in a real way, and I ate bao after bao and left that one tanked up and energized.” And terrifically, “An Ethiopian place on Fairfax near Olympic made me laugh, like the chef had a private joke with the food, one that had something to do with trains, and baldness. I didn’t even get the joke, but the waitress kept refilling my water and asking if I was okay.” It’s not until late in the book that she confronts her fear of eating food she’s made herself—and when she does, her life begins to change.
Certainly, despite her expertise in these pages, Bender doesn’t have the final word on which emotions translate to food and why. You can argue with the range of Rose’s perceptions: Why, for instance, does she taste people’s feelings, but not those of the animals she eats? When it comes to flavor, why is there such a difference between authentic sadness and superficial misery? But perhaps the most striking thing about Rose’s relationship to food is that it is intensely, almost unbearably, current. She tastes the way people are feeling in the moment, the sentiments absorbed by what their hands touch. Meanwhile, in the world outside the book, the emotion of food is mostly related to memories, and to the past: moments and people and whole seasons can be conjured by the taste of pancakes, chicken soup, or even just a thin film of blueberry jam on toast.
Soon after I finished the book, I went to Toronto for my grandmother’s unveiling. At my aunt’s house after we returned from the cemetery, people milled around a table covered with platters of cookies and cakes and fruit, and drank icy pink lemonade of an unnervingly electric shade. As I stood next to my mother and talked to family and friends who were still in shock from my grandmother’s sudden death last summer, I picked at a slice of moist blueberry coffee cake my mother had made in a spate of focused, likely fraught baking for this gathering. In at least that case, I didn’t need to taste what went into the cake to know what did.
An American family living in Turkey — the mother working as a war correspondent and the father raising their infant daughter — goes on vacation with their in-laws. Tired of Istanbul, their home, and tired from work, they visit Burgazada, a nearby island resort. Looking to unwind, they book a place with a pool, and they look forward to relaxing. That’s when things get Hitchcock-y: far from being pastoral, the island is bloody. Discarded spinal cords litter their patio because the place is lousy with cannibal birds. They drop skeletons from the sky. They shit brazenly. They deprive the family members of sleep.
“Fucking birds,” Nathan Deuel complains one morning.
“I hate them,” his mother-in-law responds.
To readers of Friday Was the Bomb, Deuel’s collection of essays about living in the Middle East and trying to raise a family, the ordeal makes for a vivid story: there’s gore; there’s action; there’s Schadenfreude. It’s easy to laugh. For Nathan and his family, however, the stakes are too high for amusement. This trip was supposed to be a chance for the family to decompress. It was supposed to be a chance for Deuel and his wife, Kelly McEvers, to spend time together, to enjoy some peace before parting ways again — her to Baghdad, him to single parenthood in a foreign city. When each goodbye could be your last, it’s important that the time you spend together is perfect.
It’s easy to read this essay, “The Cannibal Birds of Burgazada,” as a particularly cynical analogy. Here you have visitors entering foreign territory during a time of violent unrest. Local inhabitants who look identical to one another are engaged in fierce combat, motivated by reasons unknowable to newcomers. The visitors, who never before knew — let alone cared — about the plight of these locals are suddenly appalled because they’re being personally affected by the conflict. Still, all the visitors can do is endure, report on the story, and then leave the place. And although they’ll occasionally remember the jarring images of violence, they’ll never have to endure it again.
Those locals, meanwhile, are still killing each other.
Deuel, to his credit, seems aware of this possible interpretation. As an American man living abroad, he knows that if shit hits the fan, he can pack up and leave. He knows that as real and jarring as the violence in Syria becomes, he does not live there. He knows that it’s his wife who dons the flak jacket, not him — and she does this willingly. In the Acknowledgements for Friday, he notes that many of the collection’s pieces are “set against a suffering far greater than any I will ever likely experience.” Because of this, he admits that “there’s something unsettling about spending so much time with my discomfort.” He invites readers to judge him “harshly,” if they choose.
The thing is that it’s difficult to judge someone harshly when they’re being so honest and open with you. There’s no fun in it. Like Eminem at the end of 8 Mile, Deuel repeatedly burns himself before we get the opportunity to scoff at him on our own, and in this way he wards off criticism by depriving us of our best fodder.
For example, right as we begin to think he’s being paranoid, he admits he’s being paranoid. When he’s projecting his anxiety onto passersby in the street, worrying if strangers will “hit him in the face” for no apparent reason, and we write in our page margins Would Deuel feel this way if he lived in Prague? we get, pages later, his admission that “everything I’d struggled with the last five years — worrying, death, guilt — would dog me no matter what country we lived in.”
This goes on for nineteen essays. It’s a peculiar slight of hand, and it shifts readers’ focus from a position of detached, emotionless superiority (I don’t think I’d be worried about that…) to, instead, an intimate look at the wellspring of Deuel’s nervousness: the very real and abiding stresses of raising a family, and of being separated from your spouse. By being so honest and clear about these unshakeable fears, Deuel’s anxieties become our own. It’s a move that would make most novelists jealous. In this way, Friday succeeds where others — like Dave Eggers — have failed.
Throughout the Middle East, there’s a common sentiment known as Insha’Allah, or “God willing.” Among several interpretations of the saying is the belief that certain things are out of an individual’s control, and that certain occurrences in the future are preordained. In practical terms, the saying can also take on additional meaning: there’s no use worrying because it’s all part of a larger plan anyway. It’s all out of my hands. In the UAE, this version manifests itself in the form of widespread disdain for seat belts (If I crash, I was supposed to crash, there was nothing to be done…) Elsewhere, it more benignly excuses tardiness for appointments (I got there when I could, it was out of my control…).
Since 2011, when my mother, step-father, and sister moved to Amman, Jordan, they’ve come to use a version of this belief as a cure-all for the general anxieties of travel, of living in a new place, and of being somewhat isolated from the rest of our family. (Full disclosure: Deuel profiled the three of them for the Financial Times last year.) The takeaway becomes something along the lines of: what will happen will happen, and we can only worry about the things within our control.
Of course, this ability to cope with anxiety is a privilege borne not only from faith, but from the privilege of living in a safer, less stressful environment than, say, Deuel’s family — and both are worlds apart from those living amidst the most violent fighting in the region. Still, in reading Deuel’s essays I was struck again and again by how much he could use this same sort of coping mechanism, such as when, following a car bomb within Beirut city limits, Deuel frantically checks his Twitter feed for updates about the body count. He looks at images of the explosion’s aftermath, and he worries, yet again, about his wife stationed abroad. In an internet café, he watches “a girl sip a strawberry smoothie, a boy bite into a sandwich, and an old man struggle to plug in a new iPhone.” For Deuel, the level of calm possessed by his local peers is as unattainable as it is perplexing.
But make no mistake: Deuel chose to check that Twitter stream, and he sought out those pictures. As a family man, he feels obligated to stay informed because knowledge is all he can have in that moment. Like a radio picking up a higher frequency than others, Deuel is sensitive to all of the violence surrounding him, and he struggles to cope. But the truth remains that this masochistic gathering of information cannot and will not lead to increased power over his or his family’s situation. A bomb can go off tomorrow and he could be standing near it or he won’t be — that he checked Twitter won’t make a difference. The locals who’ve grown up around such violence understand this, and they are, tragically, either accustomed to such random turns of fate, or they’re too busy and panicked to focus on much beyond self-preservation.
And the truth is that these fears would follow him no matter where he went. If you seek out news of calamitous events and senseless violence, you will see examples everywhere you look. Spend an afternoon reading a police blotter and you’ll soon feel like a piano hangs above everyone’s head.
Ultimately, there’s a relationship between chronic worry and the exacerbation of personal dread. Deuel comes to realize, admitting at one point, “I could… point, in theory, to all that this worrying makes possible, such as my punctuality. But in reality, I admit, most of the time, the fact that I think too much probably leads more often to an increase in my personal misery — in a ratio disproportionate to the timeliness it occasions.”
Back in Burguzada, beneath the murderous birds, Deuel and his family came to ignore the screeching and to accept the gruesome detritus raining from the sky. They adapted to the birds in the way that they adapted to the heat. They adapted because they had to — because there’s not much else they could do — and before long, to Deuel’s “immense relief,” the days “melted into one another, …the bones and the cries of the birds eventually became part of the landscape, the background noise to our vacation routine.” Insha’Allah, Nathan.
I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
It is easy to write about the arrival of desire. You can spot its presence right away: it reddens cheeks, quickens pulses, and makes a cold room hot. Discovering lust is naturally dramatic in any story, and writers from D.H. Lawrence to Danielle Steele have discovered all the tricks to make our hearts race and palms sweat. But how do you write about desire’s disappearance? When the central characters of your love story left their virginity behind long ago, what is left to discover? And when the sheets go cold, what generates emotional highs? The tension comes from what is absent, and so the story without sex is populated by apparitions, suggestions and possibilities of satisfaction whispering in the wings. Desire haunts former lovers, and becomes an embrace from which they cannot escape.
This kind of desire-in-absentia serves as the engine of Meg Wolitzer’s extraordinary new novel The Uncoupling, which may prove a new classic for our oddly old-fashioned modern times. At the novel’s outset, Robby and Dory Lang are the model of a modern marriage, one traditionally structured yet propelled by a steady passion. Contented in each other’s company, they assumed that desire would always be there, that “they would sleep together frequently, happily, and not just gently, but with the same gruff, fierce purpose as always.” They teach in the English department at Eleanor Roosevelt (“Elro”) High School in Stellar Plains, New Jersey, and hardly register the arrival of a new drama teacher with plans for a production of Lysistrata, the Aristophanes comedy about the women of Greece going on a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War. Though the themes of the play contribute a great deal, Wolitzer spends more time playing with the broader exploration of desire, and when a cold wind sweeps into the town and steals away the women’s lust, what ensues is a supernatural happening with devastating consequences.
Wolitzer’s principal assumption, even in the happy beginnings of the novel, is that desire fades as love marches forward into middle age, that even the most content of couples will find themselves wanting less of each other. “People like to warn you that by the time you reach the middle of your life, passion will begin to feel like a meal eaten long ago, which you remember with great tenderness.” Dory never had to suffer through this odd nostalgia, and so when the cold wind sneaks into her bed, she is disarmed by its presence. “It was as if the words had been supplied to her by some hidden prompt,” and what most torments her is that though her affection for Robby remains, the easy passion has vanished. Dory finds herself stuck in memories of how their love used to be, apologizing to Robby but unable to move forward. “She couldn’t tell him about wanting to shake everything up, or about what she now knew, which was that once you realize you are different from the way you used to be, then you can never be that earlier way again. Awareness changes you forever, and instead of being spontaneous during sex, you will forever be a little self-congratulatory.” This new reality, this never being able to go back to the spontaneity of sex, stops up her lust completely. “You could dress love up, but always you would have to confront desire—its absence or presence.” Robby’s desperate purchase of a Snuggie-like blanket is all that Dory has to see to really give up and give in to the despair of a sexless future. “He had bought it because they were now in a period of life in which they could use it. They were seeking warmth from someplace other than each other.”
As the spell sweeps through Stellar Plains, anxieties grow over passion stretched over too many years, sex that has become too lived-in, and too accustomed. Wolitzer manages to get the adult perspective on teenagers just right, full of half-correct sugar-coated predictions, and uses their misperceptions to kick the sexual anxiety up a notch: Robby says of his daughter’s generation, “They’re all like someone in a dream,” and it’s a statement born more out of wonder than condescension. Yet their daughter Willa is also touched by the spell, just as she begins a tender romance with the drama teacher’s son. They come together as avatars in a virtual forest, and Willa’s first sexual experiences give her a new awareness of her body and her desires. “She felt as if she were unfolding, unclasping, being saturated, falling to bits, intensely whirled around like someone blindfolded and about to smack a piñata… ‘Going the distance’ seemed a good way to think of what it would be like. It—sex, actual sex, created a distance between you and everyone except the other person. You were in a hot-air balloon, and you waved goodbye to your sweet but clueless mother and father, and even your dazed and innocent old dog.” This is the poignant, trembling awareness of teenage love and the first awakening of desire. Through Willa’s eyes, Wolitzer gives us a character who gets to experience everything fresh, and Willa blossoms through love and sex with a surprising amount of tenderness and humor. This, of course, becomes all too tragic when the chill forces her into a jaded nihilism, thinking, This is never going to last. Oh, what is the point? She withdraws from what she has just discovered, and you want to reach through the page and shake the spell off of her; no one should have to suffer this loss, especially not someone who has so much left to explore.
The spell makes its way to all the main female characters, and in each person’s cooling and retreating, Wolitzer gives specific, very real reasons to recoil from intimacy. Ruth the gym teacher is performing a dance for her handsome husband and three small boys when the cold air rushes into her kitchen and all over her skin. “She realized now that she had been overtouched; she was like a computer with a thousand fingerprints on the screen. How did anyone tolerate being touched? It was terrible, all that touching.” The revulsion sweeps in so suddenly that it literally knocks her to the floor and leaves her weeping, begging her husband to leave her alone. The alluring school psychologist Leanne, juggling three men at once, suddenly senses that “one of these days it’s going to look bad, and I’ll seem like this predatory person. And that will be terrible and humiliating.” A sad little worm of self-doubt clings to her, a reminder that “one day, not terribly long from now, she would be older, and she would be considered someone a little wild and embarrassing. A cougar, perhaps… Men could get away with sleeping with various women, but not the other way around.” And poor Ed and Bev Cutler, the long-married long-dispassionate, suddenly have the disappointment of their relationship stripped bare to them, the cold wind no longer worth fighting back. They retreat to opposite sides of the bed, no longer hoping for something better.
But even as the husbands begin to ache with longing, and the wives tears their hair out in frustration, the adults unite in a mutual fear of a new, colder world encroaching on their former, warmer ways. They wish to be more like their children, like their students, like the newer generation that might be on the verge of discovering something fresh to lust after. “You weren’t supposed to think that life was worse now; it was ‘different,’ everyone said. But Dory privately thought that mostly it was worse.” The adults fear that they are too old for passion or pleasure—and so they envy the teenagers who have everything ahead of them to look forward to, and nothing behind them to mourn. Dory sees this all too clearly:
Lucky them for the future, and the love that lay waiting. They could make whichever analogies they chose: the love that lay waiting like a web page as yet undesigned, or maybe even like a forest as yet unwalked in. A bafflingly simple forest green and virtual, or one wet and dark and real. Lucky them. She had underestimated them, and now she felt only regret.
If the language of desire is spoken with a vocabulary honed over many years, then inevitably women got tired of talking. What was there that was new to say? Wolitzer brilliantly executes the premise of the magic spell, but with feelings articulated this clearly, she doesn’t need supernatural sorcery to transport the reader. And only in a peripheral plot or two does the novel falls short. But Wolitzer’s achievement is extraordinary—finally, a novel about true yearning that doesn’t belong solely to the young. She creates an original parable without ever leaning on her source material, and explores all the life stages of desire: the long relationship that has somehow maintained its energy; the first tremors of teenage lust; the quick excitements of one-night stands; and the frustrated marriage with all its inevitable droops and disappointments. She has built for us a community defined by desire, and in taking that desire away, she turns what could be a mundane story into something mythic. Though much of what the town of Stellar Plains faces is painfully recognizable, on every page this reader found it “thrilling, it was all cracking open, and in their lifetimes, which was so terrific. How wonderful to be there for the show.”