A review of Stephen Eirik Clark’s debut novel, Sweetness #9
The Story: David Leveraux’s first job as a “flavorist-in-training” is to test the toxicity “The Nine” an artificial sweetener. When he discovers adverse reactions in monkeys and rats, the company immediately starts a cover up, leading to him losing his job and a nervous breakdown. His recovery comes through another job – this time as a full flavorist responsible for developing better tasting food additives. But he still has twinges of guilt, he watches “The Nine” gain full FDA approval and sweep the world. Maybe he was wrong back then, or was he?
Anyone who knows me will have heard my rant about artificial sweeteners and their poisonous qualities. Over the years, numerous scientific studies backed up my opinions, combined with the evidence of my own experiences when using and then eliminating them from my own diet. Yet, they’re still out there in practically every processed food available on the market today and shamelessly flaunted to boot. Even with all this, no one pays attention to their harmful qualities, despite the growingly reliable evidence that continues to pile up attesting their detriment, and absolutely no counter-studies to refute their dangers.
Thank goodness for this book. Now I have hope; maybe this novel will become a huge best-seller and change all this. (After getting the “Colbert Bump” the chances of it becoming a best-seller are very high!)
Already I can hear people saying that a work of fiction can’t do much good. In answer to that, I’ll remind you that sometimes fiction – based enough in reality – can push overlooked issues to the fore of public consciousness. This works especially well when the world consistently ignores the endless numbers of dry tomes of data, facts, and figures. Case in point: Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” after which Asperger’s became practically a household word. Although this novel might not be wholly the same, there is no small amount of factual and historical content here. Who knows but this might unveil the eyes of those that glazed over from countless journalistic attempts to open them by employing everything in their investigative arsenal from immutable reason to scare tactics.
Haddon succeeded because his protagonist was ultimately sympathetic, with a puzzle his readers increasingly wanted him to figure out. This was an enormous achievement despite the protagonists’ condition being unfamiliar and barely pronounceable. By comparison, Clark’s task of making the perfectly normal David Leveraux sympathetic while turning something as innocuous as an artificial sweetener into something sinister, seems easy – but it isn’t. Because after fearfully abandoning #9, Leveraux’s next job develops the artificial flavors we desire the most, making us crave more processed foods. Hence, the slippery slope that David has a hand in, which goes far beyond the evils of just #9, and takes on the ramifications of flavorings (and colorings) in general and their effects on the modern day diet and health. Then comes the question – is David a good-guy, the genius bringing us engineered foods that taste and look better than natural ones? Or is David as bad as a Nazi soldier, just following (or in his case, filling) orders and keeping his mouth shut?
The thing is, we immediately like David, and we quickly empathize with him, even when we disagree with him on any number of subjects and issues. As we delve into David’s life and family – on the backdrop of history that leads David to finally telling this story – we realize just how quickly the developed world’s eating habits (Americans in particular) have changed over the past 50 or so years – for the better and for the worse. We then begin to wonder who is to blame for the ‘worse’ parts – people like David, American culture, capitalism, greed, or maybe someone or something else altogether?
Through this, we get a novel that it seems to combine genres. Although this isn’t historical fiction per se, it certainly starts out that way in 1973, as it takes us through 2012, with a few of trips to Germany in the late 1930s-early 1940s. While there’s no real crime or murder involved, there is intrigue, mystery and some adventure, all written at a pace is as swift as you would expect for these genres, which we gobble up like the first offering after a fast. By the time we get to the climax, we’ve even experienced romance, heartbreak and lots of comedy. Then there’s the climax itself and the subsequent ending, most of which borders on the absurd, but not the unbelievable, especially if we recall the adage ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ which Clark stretches to the max!
In short, this novel is exciting, informative, insightful and at turns both funny and horrifying. I would even go so far as to say it’s one of the most captivating novels I’ve read in a long while (it was so engrossing, I willingly ignored practically everything in my life just to read it). No, it may not blow the roof off the artificial sweetener market and get people back to drinking unflavored water or soda. However, it could start opening people’s eyes to the food industry and how they ignore health warning signs while chasing the big bucks, and that’s no small feat. What’s more, this is Clark’s debut work, so watch out world because it deserves no less than a full five out of five stars!
“Sweetness #9” by Stephen Eirik Clark, published by Little, Brown & Company (a division of the Hachette Books Group which is presently in dispute with Amazon), released on August 19, 2014 is available directly from the publishers, from Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, via iTunes as an iBook as well as via Kobo and IndieBound. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.