Monday, August 18, 2014

Flavored for Deception

Sweetness #9: A Novel by Stephen Eirik Clark


David Leveraux's first job is to test the toxicity "The Nine" an artificial sweetener. When he discovers adverse reactions in monkeys and rats combined with the company's cover up, he loses his job and has a nervous breakdown. His recovery comes through another job - this time in the field he studied for, as a flavorist - the food chemist responsible for developing better tasting food additives. With only rare twinges of guilt, he watches as "The Nine" sweeps 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, it seems like no one pays attention to their harmful qualities, despite the growing reliable evidence that continues to pile up attesting their detriment, and absolutely no counter-studies to refute their dangers. Maybe this novel will change all this.

However, can fiction change things in the real world? I think it can. Remember, 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 Syndrome 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 Although this novel might not be wholly the same, there is no small amount of factual and historical content here. This might brighten the eyes of those that glazed over from countless journalistic attempts to unveil them by employing everything in their arsenal from immutable reason to panicky scare tactics.

Haddon succeeded because he wrote his protagonist to be ultimately sympathetic, and combined that with a question that his readers increasingly wanted him to answer. This was an enormous achievement mostly because the protagonists' condition was both unfamiliar and barely pronounceable. By comparison, Clark's task of making the perfectly normal David Leveraux sympathetic while having something as innocuous as an artificial sweetener into something sinister, seems easy. However, this isn't as simple as it seems, because after fearfully abandoning #9, Leveraux goes on to a company that develops the artificial flavors we desire the most, making us crave more processed foods. Hence, the slippery slope that David has a hand in, goes far beyond the evils of just #9, and takes on the ramifications of flavorings in general and their effects on the modern day diet and our health. Then comes the question - is David a good-guy, the genius bringing us foods that tastes wonderful? On the other hand, is David 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. Clark does this with swiftly flowing prose that we gobble it up like the first meal after a fast. 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 Western world's eating habits (and 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 it is someone or something else altogether?

Another interesting thing about this novel is 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 2013, with a few of trips into the late 1930s-early 1940s Germany. While there's no 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. By the time we get to the climax, we've even experienced romance and no small amount 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, and 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, and it was so engrossing that 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's ignoring health warning signs while chase big buck, 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: A Novel" by Stephen Eirik Clark, published by Little, Brown & Company, released on August 19, 2014 is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris or Better World Books. This is a revised version of my review that appears on my Times of Israel blog. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.