Before reading Mary Roach’s latest book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, a meticulously researched and darkly humorous look at the science of modern warfare, it had never occurred to me that birds could pose a serious threat to a fighter pilot. Like many civilians, my understanding of jets and the mechanics of flight was largely informed by repeated viewings of the film Top Gun, which left me confident that my knowledge of the term “jetwash” would convey to all those in the military that I “understood” the danger they faced in combat (or at the very least demonstrate my status as an aficionado of 1980s pop culture). Roach quickly dispelled this belief in the introduction to Grunt, where she relates in characteristically witty prose the existence of the “chicken gun,” the massive yet comical artillery piece that shoots typical grocery store chickens out of its 60-foot barrel to simulate the impacts of birds in flight. A starling, it turns out, can pierce a jet’s windscreen like a bullet. Who knew?
Mary Roach has built her career on answering the question “who knew?” about some of the most interesting and (at times) disturbing subjects of scientific inquiry. Her first book, Stiff, introduced readers to the life — or, rather, afterlife — of human cadavers, and since then, Roach has published six books (one collection of short essays and five full-length works of non-fiction), four of which have similarly whimsical one word titles in Bonk, Gulp, Spook, and Grunt. Considering these one word titles collectively, it seems fitting that all of them can be read as verbs. Each one imparts an energy and vitality to the work that makes Roach’s writing thrilling, accessible, and engrossing in the best possible ways. Roach has a unique ability to make the morbid funny.
There’s a phrase soldiers use in combat situations that can also be used to describe Roach’s voice: “going kinetic.” This is slang for “people are firing guns at you.” It’s also a play on the scientific term kinetic (as in kinetic energy, a phrase many readers will recognize from high school physics class). Kinetic energy is the energy of an object while in motion: of a bicyclist flying down a hill, for instance, or of a writer pacing furiously around a room. Roach’s writing is kinetic in the sense that it propels its readers forward, maintaining a speed and energy that keeps us turning the page, elongating a state of perpetual curiosity. Why did the military attempt to develop shark repellent? How does one go about reconstructing a penis after it has been damaged in an IED blast?
Like most of Roach’s work, Grunt is concerned with the bizarre, the intricate, and, ultimately, the temporal. This isn’t a book about the science of wars long past (there’s nary a mention of German military efficiency, and readers looking for information about the 12th panzer division of armored tanks are advised to look elsewhere). Though Roach makes occasional reference to 19th- and early-20-century wars — as when she writes that dysentery or diarrhea killed 95,000 soldiers during the Civil War — Grunt primarily focuses on the present and recent past, rarely examining science older than the Vietnam War. In fact, much of the science Roach reports is currently in the experimental phase of development.
WIAMan, for instance, is a Warrior Injury Assessment Manikin the Army has invested in to help them study and (eventually) simulate the injuries sustained by soldiers in IED explosions. Unlike traditional crash test dummies, which have been designed for automobile companies to test head-on or otherwise horizontal collisions, WIAMan will, when it’s finished, have a much larger range of motion, with artificial limbs and ligaments that will react the way the human body reacts when an IED blast hits it (as Roach explains, IEDs tend to explode underneath tanks, knocking soldiers in their heels). In some ways, WIAMan is both a testament to modern military innovation, which is capable of engineering high-tech instruments with no real use in the battlefield, and a reminder that the science of warfare is progressing too fast for medicine to keep up. We’re not prepared for the wounds that these new weapons inflict. We’re still learning to heal the old ones.
Unlike Roach’s other works of nonfiction, which focus on fascinating but (for the most part) non-lifesaving scientific advancements and discoveries, Grunt shines a light on science that’s actively attempting to keep people alive. Perhaps for this reason, it feels less like a survey of new military science — much or most of which is surely classified — than it does a masterful work of nonfiction that intends to draw the reader’s attention away from the drone strikes reported in the mainstream media and, in so doing, change the national conversation about war. Roach isn’t writing about the NSA, the Geneva Convention, or the various ways that science has improved the military and the government’s ability to surveil, kill, and torture. That’s a subject for another day, another book. In Grunt, Roach sticks to the science most relevant to soldiers: eating, sleeping, defecating. Like the subtitle says, the book is about “the curious science of humans at war,” not machines. It’s Roach’s attempt to humanize war in the best way she knows how: through research.
In the hands of a less capable or more sentimental writer, Grunt could read like a heartfelt plea to reallocate military spending and save the troops with science. Instead, Roach takes a no nonsense approach to this very difficult topic and shows the soldiers she writes about in this book the same level of respect and sagacity she would anyone who occasionally has to shit into a little sandwich bag. Without letting the toilet humor overrun the book, Roach acknowledges the frequently gross and often absurd situations soldiers find themselves in (battling diarrhea during a crucial mission, for instance) and treats these soldiers like people with all their idiosyncrasies intact. One man she talks to adamantly refuses to take antibiotics to treat diarrhea. A sailor looks at her funny because she can’t imagine peeing in a wetsuit. And then there’s the one scientist with the voice like James Spader’s who says, “If you don’t have a pair of cadaver shoes, you’re not doing enough research.” (Good shoes, it turns out, will be ruined by the fluids used while experimenting on cadavers.) It’s often hard to tell whether Roach’s subjects just naturally have a sense of humor about their work, or if she’s bringing it out of them, but in the end, it’s Roach’s snappy writing style and impeccable comedic timing that make Grunt a must-read. I can’t imagine another person writing it.
In 2003, Mary Roach kicked off her book-publishing career with Stiff, a look into the lifespans (pun intended) of cadavers and the ethics of using them for study. At Lapham’s Quarterly, you’ll find the 2001 magazine article that Roach later expanded into Stiff. (Related: we interviewed Roach back in April.)
It was inevitable, really. Mary Roach’s previous books have ostensibly been about sex, cadavers, the afterlife, and space travel, but each one has spent a fair amount of time on digestion, excretion, and highly topical fart jokes.
In her latest book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach finally explores all that happens after you take that bite — not as an entertaining sideshow, but as the focus of 17 entertaining and occasionally bizarre chapters. Megacolons, stimulated saliva, death by constipation, and of course the scientists who study this stuff with aplomb (and an occasional apology): it is, as it were, all in there.
I interviewed her while she was in Seattle for her book tour.
The Millions: Your past work has focused on bringing topics that are creepy or lurid or awe-inspiring back down to earth. This one’s primarily about overcoming disgust. Did you find it challenging to make digestion and excretion palatable for your audience?
Mary Roach: Well, I think digestion is another lurid, taboo subject — particularly from the navel down. But even what goes on in the mouth is an unthinkable, revolting thing that no one wants to think about. There was a sense that this was right up my stinky little alley.
TM: Packing for Mars came out the same year that NASA retired the Shuttles and the Opportunity rover broke records for the longest Mars mission. Stiff came out around the same time that shows about forensic science became the hot new thing…
MR: And Six Feet Under.
TM: Right. Was there something that made you decide: yes, 2013 is the time to publish a book about the digestive tract?
MR: You know, I think the whole obsession with food had hit an unprecedented level, in terms of people photographing every meal and posting it on Instagram. Food has moved so far away from just a way to stay alive and take in sustenance to a point where it’s now almost high culture. So it makes sense to look past the borders of the lips and take a peek at what goes on after the food leaves the plate.
On the tour, my publicist set up events with people like Chris Kimball and Ted Allen, which makes for a really interesting conversation. We tend to elevate food to a sensual, cultural place, but for someone like Chris Kimball, he’s looking at food as chemistry. And eating is biology.
TM: Two of the most memorable people in your book were William Beaumont, the physician who made a career out of his patient’s stomach fistula, and Andries van der Bilt, the chewing scientist at Utrecht who will probably be the last researcher of his kind at the university. In other words, in the book you go from the early days of science virtuosos to very specialized people doing narrow and admittedly gross stuff. Is that how the field of gastro-intestinal science looks right now?
MR: It’s really hard to get funding for pure science just for the sake of figuring out how things work. It’s a lot easier to get funded if you have a practical application for things. Also, a lot of it’s been figured out.
I’m not a scientist, so I’m going out on a limb here, but I do get the sense that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know very much, and there isn’t an end point. So there’s always more to be done — there’s just not as much funding for it anymore. It’s more science in the service of the food industry.
But even in that world, there are characters like Erika Silletti, who are so awed and amazed by what they’re discovering. She has this infectious enthusiasm for…spit!
TM: You’re in the middle of your book tour now. What do you like to present at your events?
MR: I don’t do a lot of readings when I do talks. Some of them are billed as readings, but I wouldn’t call them that, really. I find that if you read to non-fiction to people for more than a paragraph, people will glaze over. So I’ll read footnotes.
Once of my favorite footnotes in Gulp is where I’m talking about per anum, which is through the anus, and per annum, which is yearly. And I did a Google search for instances where people meant per annum but wrote per anum, and that’s one of my favorites. How many childbirths occur per anum, that sort of thing.
TM: Do you find that people are more squeamish to ask you questions about the digestive tract than they were on your earlier book tours, when the topic was the afterlife or space?
MR: Oh no, no. Once you open the door for them, people want to know all kinds of things. Sometimes people want to know, “I have a mucoid plaque, can you tell me what to do,” and I have to say, “I don’t have an M.D., I can’t dispense medical advice — nor do I really want to.”
But people have great questions. The other day I was doing an author lunch at Google; people had a lot of questions about rectal smuggling.
TM: Early on in the book, you find out that your palate isn’t developed enough for you to be on a professional olive oil tasting panel. Any other potential avenues of research that never worked out?
MR: I wanted to go to Food Valley when someone was actually involved in an experiment, but I couldn’t seem to time it right. There were a couple subjects, but most were not particularly interesting. There’s someone there with a tube hooked in mouth, and it squirts in something that they’re tasting, and they make a note of it. It’s not particularly scintillating, and it didn’t make it into the book.
There’s a woman who studies pica (people who ingest non-food) and she studies in Zanzibar with women who eat a variety of clays. I wanted to do that, partly because I really wanted to go to Zanzibar — that really lies at the bottom of a lot of what I do, I really want to go there, what could I find there? — but it felt a little…off unto itself. When you go all the way to Zanzibar, you want to spend a lot of time on that subject, not just a few paragraphs.
TM: When you first started writing, I think one of your pieces was about the IRS. Then you moved on to the afterlife, cadavers, space travel. What sort of writers made you think, I want to write about things that are kind of out there, or that people might not think about all that often?
MR: The writer who I glommed on to and loved his style was Bill Bryson, when he wrote The Lost Continent. This was before A Walk in the Woods, before he started going huge. I remember reading his books, and I admired his ability to combine information and humor and character. It was inspirational. Every now and then I put a little homage to passages that really got in my head from writers like him, inside jokes to myself.
When I was writing Gulp, I had just read Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and when she did something outrageous or pathetic, Mapplethorpe would say to her, “Patti, no.” And when I was with Sue Langston, who’s a sensory analyst — the nose woman — and I asked her, “if you had to choose between a Budweiser and an IPA right now, what would you choose?” and she said, “I would take the Bud,” and I said, “Sue, no.” That was my little homage to Mapplethorpe and that book.
TM: In 2011 you edited the Best American Science and Nature Writing, so I’m hoping you might pontificate about science writing in general for a second. When you write your books, or when you evaluate science writing, what are you looking for — what should a good science piece accomplish?
MR: I don’t know if the genre of “science writing” should really exist. We don’t classify “religion writing” or “political writing” as an entirely different register of writing. There’s such a wide range — material that simply explains, others that are strongly narrative. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you learn a lot about cell culturing, but it’s still primarily a story.
For that collection in particular, I tried to do a mix. The Atul Gawande essay, I thought, was beautiful. For someone in that community to stand up — or I should say, sit down and write — about how far the discussion about end-of-life care needs to go in order to really help people. And then the Oliver Sacks piece about prosopagnosia, he’s just a wonderful thinker/writer, he’s more reporting rather than recommending.
For me, there are a lot of valid ways to write about science, and when I was judging that book it was really just what pulled me in and kept my interest and taught me something. There are so many ways to do that.
I’ve long evangelized Mary Roach’s writing because she has such a knack for conveying extremely complicated information in an incredibly entertaining way. (See also: Susan Casey and Michael Lewis.) From cadavers to space travel, she focuses on our world’s most natural curiosities – and now she’s diving into perhaps the most natural curiosity of all: digestion. In her new book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Roach takes readers on a journey through their own gullets. To get a brief idea, check out the book trailer. (It’s very “Innerspace”)
I have an odd schedule this fall – I’m a part time grad student and a part time professional. I’m spending time north of the city in Evanston as well as downtown and at my apartment on the North Side. This means a lot of off-peak time spent on the El, where I’ve been able to continue my quasi-sociological study of Chicago based on what I observe people reading on the El. One thing I learned today: there’s not as much reading going on during those off-peak hours. Apparently, if you’re riding around on the train at ten in the morning or three in the afternoon, you’re not likely to have your nose in a book. On the four trains and one bus (purple line, red line, and the 92) that I rode today I only spotted four books, three of which I was able to identify.Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach – It seems a bit morbid for an afternoon train ride, but I’m told that this book is a quite entertaining example of the “biography of a thing” genre.Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power by Timothy B. Tyson – This one sounds pretty interesting. It’s about a militant civil rights radical who was forced to flee the country. He ended up in pre-revolutionary Cuba where he started a radio show called Radio Free Dixie.Bloodlines by Dinah McCall – mass-market paperbacks are to bookspotting as pigeons are to bird watching.Previously: May, July, August