I had previously made a big deal of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot being a descendant of Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. Sweetness #9, the new novel by Stephan Eirik Clark, is an even purer descendant of White Noise, heavily influenced by the Real Food movement.
Like White Noise, the sublimity of American magic and dread is at the heart of the novel. Except the magic and dread both largely come from the concoctions invented and manufactured by the protagonist, David Leveraux, and his mentor and co-workers. David hopes to one day discover the flavor components of his mother’s pot roast, who died with his father at the hands of a shooter in a Texas college clocktower, leaving David orphaned as a teenager. The formative event leads David to become a promising young flavor chemist who lands his first job monitoring the testing of Sweetness #9 on rats at a gigantic and powerful flavor manufacturer. When he starts seeing alarming results in the rats, the higher-ups remind him his job is to look for cancer and only cancer. What his rats are suffering is essentially the American Condition: lethargy, depression, hair-trigger rage, a seemingly primal drive to eat.
Unable to convince anyone of what he’s seen or the conspiracy he suspects, David is driven out of the company and into a mental health retreat. It is there that he meets Ernst Eberhardt, inventor of the infamous NoNilla® and former flavorist for Hitler inside his bunker, and acquires new employment. Things start looking up. David and his wife have two children and the narrative jumps to the 90’s when his children, Priscilla and Ernest, are in high school and middle school respectively.
This is where the story picks up. Priscilla, in the throes of teenage angst and a save-the-world mentality, starts listening to radio programs decrying the dangers of Sweetness #9, a sugar-replacement which has now become an ingredient in the majority of processed foods. David becomes anxious about what secrets Priscilla might uncover about his failed whistle-blowing of the 70’s.
It is at this point that the similarities to White Noise become pronounced. Like White Noise’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, David is an anxious anti-hero, unsure about the truth of the world he has become entrenched in: food flavoring. His anxiety drives him to explore an ancillary to Big Food–Big Pharma–as he begins to need anti-anxiety drugs to continue to function in his life. Both David and Jack are naively unreliable first person narrators. Their views of the world, like all of ours, are limited, but the reader can perceive the limits of their understanding.
Like the Gladney family, the Leveraux family is quirky. Their son Ernest puts red food coloring in his orange juice and doesn’t use verbs (an echo of Steffie’s burnt toast comfort food and Wilder’s stunted language development). Priscilla wears a hoodie and jeans each day, sullen and idealistic (like an amalgamation of Denise and Heinrich). David’s wife, Betty, is accomplished and body-obsessed, addicted to diet soda and exercise regimes (somewhat more self-possessed than Babette).
As the secret of Sweetness #9 weighs more heavily on David, his life begins to unravel. And David finds that the truth is much bigger than he imagined.
Sweetness #9 is satirical in nature, with thinly veiled references to real world products and events (also like White Noise); however, the tone and absurdity of Sweetness don’t quite go far enough to make the satire consistent. David’s voice has a dryness akin to the lawyer narrator of Bartelby the Scrivener, which drags at times. As David attempts to record his involvement in a grand conspiracy of food manufacturing, he also begins to unravel the mysteries of the American condition: our tendency towards anxiety, depression, and obesity despite a rather cushy lifestyle.
Both attempt to rediscover the true real under the illusory real. In Sweetness #9, it is a tension between a real food and the lab-concocted approximation. The flavor of “wild cherry” in a medication takes precedence in the consumer’s mind as the real taste, for how many people have actually tasted a cherry from the wild? On this note, one of my favorite moments from Sweetness #9, a moment where the concept of the novel was fully realized and firing on all satirical and philosophical pistons, was a visit by David and his FlavAmerica co-workers to a newly opened art museum in the refurbished downtown area. I will not give away its secret, but the scene smacked of Murray’s and Jack’s trip to The Most Photographed Barn in America. I couldn’t help but love it.
Sweetness #9 does diverge from its pater-novel. Though both have an interest in Hitler, Clark dramatizes Hitler in amusing ways, while DeLillo only uses his mystique through reference. Though both have supermarkets as the center of society, DeLillo leaves his relatively restorative (until the end) while Clark decides to completely undermine the comfort the supermarket offers. Further, the scope of DeLillo’s novel is only one year, while Sweetness #9 dramatizes moments from various years of David’s life. In some ways, that dragged down the pacing of the novel for me. I would find myself strongly intrigued by one chapter then a bit bored by the next. It wasn’t until the more contemporary sections focused fully on David’s family that I was consistently engaged. But most noticeably, Sweetness #9 offers a satisfactory conclusion, while White Noise offers no answers or solace.
Recommended for fans of the Real Food movement and social satire.