Friday, April 1, 2011

“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”

If I were only allowed to ever read from one genre of books again in my life, I would most likely choose fantasy. It’s the one that’s my automatic response when people make me select one, though honestly I’m more fond of specific authors or series than the vast umbrella coverage of an entire genre. But I’m willing to admit there is at least one element of fantasy that make it more likely to catch and hold my interest than anything else.

When I read a book I want it to be something that could not possibly happen to me. I will never walk through the back of a wardrobe into a snowy land, I will never attend a school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I will never journey to drop a ring into a volcano. Books set in the real world seem boring in comparison. Why would I want to read about love affairs or affair affairs - considering I could, theoretically, be in a marriage of my own someday, and if I were I would, quite probably, be cheated on by my spouse. I could have all sorts of problems at work or with friends or at home. Why would I want to read about any of that in my free time, in the space where I go to escape from real life?

So it’s fair to say I am never going to be a fan of the realistic realism novel. But I’ve recently realized I have a small fondness for the genre of magical realism. “Oh Emily…” I hear you say, “That’s just the red-headed cousin of fantasy anyways, you’re breaking no new ground there.” But see, though the two may have traits in common, I don’t like one because of the other, nor do I feel that they recall each other in tone or content at all. Rather, I like magical realism for its very own reason – it feels more likely to me than ordinary realism.

When I picture the two worlds side by side – the one in which nothing takes place but that which we have seen and can understand, and the one in which anything can, theoretically, happen – the one that feels realistic to me is the latter. It has a greater Resonance in my heart. Who would want to believe in a world where all that can happen is that which can be predicted? Who would want to live there? Perhaps it is what is true, but if there were some sort of greater Truth, I can only hope it would involve anything we can possibly imagine, and once we’ve imagined it, take it for granted. The way we say the sun will rise tomorrow, would be any number of things.

Of course, a travelling salesman could turn into a giant insect. Of course, a very old man with enormous wings would eat nothing but eggplant mush. Of course, a group dancing in a circle could begin to rise into the air. Of course, a man’s shadow could be detached and put to hard labor. If these things weren’t possible, wouldn’t the world be an incredibly dull place? And more than dull, lonely?

So realizing this about an entire genre, I set out to find something new to read. It was like being given a gift certificate and pushed into a store, but one where you have no idea what is best. I actually relied on’s recommendations for pretty much the first time, and I found The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.

The narrator, a girl named Rose, has the ability to taste in foods the emotions of the person who made it. From that synopsis, and from the title, one would expect a visceral smorgasbord of lovingly detailed tastes and the accompanying emotions, ala Like Water for Chocolate. I must admit, I was a little disappointed that for a book nominally about food, there is very little eating. As soon as Rose figures out what’s happening to her, she avoids eating as much as possible, living off vending machine snacks. These, apparently, are so processed they don’t trigger her talent.

The boundaries of which were a little disorienting. Some foods she can tell where they came from, what sort of farm or factory produced them. Others she couldn’t, because they weren’t made by a person – even though the first weren’t either but still had a machine-sort of quality. It felt strongly as though Ms. Bender didn’t have a defined idea of what Rose *was* sensing, but simply made it up for each new paragraph to have the feel she wanted. I have no problem with characters who have talents that aren’t constrained by the rules of nature – I just like them to obey their own rules. Otherwise it feels wishy-washy.

Though learning she is not the only member of her family with a talent feels the same as regarding the earlier generations – again, as though it was randomly thrown in without much consideration – when it is revealed what her brother can do – I feel as that should be written in capital letters. What Her Brother Can Do – it is heartbreaking. There aren’t many characters that can inspire at once as much formless envy and overwhelming sympathy as Joseph does. I usually don’t believe books can be spoiled by a single fact, but there is a definite “Oh no, no, no!” moment with him.

The narrative style is interesting – I can imagine it getting on some reader’s nerves but I liked it. First-person, no quotations marks, little delineation between Rose’s thoughts and her speaking with other characters. It gave the whole thing a kind of melancholy tone, like she couldn’t bring herself to make an effort. Like in reminiscing this series of events, she couldn’t step out of herself enough to differentiate between her own feelings and the ones she’s tasted. It makes for a bittersweet ache, like the story itself.


Side note to the genre thing: When I was younger and saw the original Star Wars trilogy and comprehended (perhaps for the first time about any movie, that it was fiction and therefore not real) I burst into tears. Nowadays I like to tell people it was because I had a mad crush on Luke Skywalker, and realized our romance was doomed from the start since he didn’t actually exist. Because that just makes good story.

But what honestly struck me with a pervading grief was this: humans do not casually fly through the stars. We do not have our own personal spaceships that we can use to take a daytrip to another planet on a whim. And it seemed to me at the time, as many things have since, to be an infinite cruelty, that we have the capacity to imagine something that we cannot truly experience. I sometimes think it would be better if every genre except non-fiction, every era except the present, and every location except the local was banned in literature, cinema and music, so that we never realize just how much we are missing out on.


“I do not read to think. I do not read to learn.

I do not read to search for truth. I know the truth,

The truth is hardly what I need.

I read to dream. I read to live in other people's lives.

…I read to fly, to skim - I do not read to swim.”

Stephen Sondheim, Passion

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