Textureless Space and the Sadness of Lemon Cake

I love the author bios on books. Reading a good one is like reading old-time liner notes on records. The texts have an eccentric politeness, their formality spiked with unexpected jabs.

I first noticed this when my mum introduced me to The Day of the Triffids. John Wyndham’s bio on old Penguin paperbacks stated that he “decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as science fiction.” That adjective, that adverb, inflected everything that you read and thought about the man and his words.

I got a similar feeling from the author bio of Alice Munro, one of my favourite writers. When I discovered her in my first year at university, the bio included this comment:

I guess that maybe as a writer I’m a kind of anachronism…because I write about places where your roots are, and most people don’t live that kind of life any more. Most writers, probably, the writers who are most in tune with our time, write about places that have no texture because that is where most of us live.

I love that quotation. It is wry and quietly, Canadianly, contrary. At once it marginalises the speaker and humbly suggests that there might be a value in being out of tune with one’s time.

(And is there any better way of positing Alice Munro, of all people, as a science-fiction writer, than to suggest she is out of tune with our time, a fantastic voyager to the lost chronotopes of ordinary life, what she describes as “deep caves painted with kitchen linoleum”?).

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which I’ve just finished reading, deals with one of these archetypal “places that have no texture”, white suburban Los Angeles. But the central conceit of Bender’s novel is not the absence of texture which Munro describes. What troubles young Rose Edelstein is texture in excess.

Turning nine years old, Rose develops the power to taste the emotions of the people who make the food she eats. It begins when she detects hidden despair in her mother’s lemon-chocolate cake, but Rose is equally overwhelmed by food in the school cafeteria, her friends’ lunchboxes, or the restaurants she visits. Gradually she becomes able to taste the origins of each individual ingredient. She can read the story behind the apparently “effortless” business of putting food on her plate.

This is timely magic for an age when food production and consumption has come, for many in the developed world, to seem effortless. Supermarket ready meals seem not to have a history, but Rose can detect where the ingredients were grown, and in which factories they were produced, as well as the moods of the people involved in their making.

Bender doesn’t let this become a straightforward search for authenticity. Rose’s mother, the cook whose food triggers the trouble, is on a jittery quest for just such a thing, some deeper and more authentic sense of how to live. She treats Rose’s standoffish brother as a kind of guru, but comically misreads his signals. When he closes his eyes at dinner to avoid eye contact with the family, she thinks it is an unspoken directive to focus on the sense of taste above all others, yet she never detects any of the sensations that bother Rose’s palate. After flitting from one pastime to the next, Rose’s mother devotes herself to woodwork, yet her own daughter’s existence gently mocks the pursuit of traditional craft: Rose finds herself dependent on junk food and industrially produced snacks to survive. (Rose gives a paean to the Dorito: “What is good about a Dorito […] is that I’m not supposed to pay attention to it. As soon as I do, it tastes like every other ordinary chip. But if I stop paying attention, it becomes the most delicious thing in the world.”).

Rose is living in the world Alice Munro imagines, the world without texture, not because the world has been drained of meaning, but because she has become overly sensitised to the inescapable meaning of everything she consumes. Rose’s brother, who begins to disappear intermittently from the family home, faces a similar struggle. He fades away from a world that is too much, not too little.

It’s significant that Lemon Cake is set in Los Angeles, a city whose texture is dictated by the superficial blandness of suburbs and freeways. (A recent LA Review of Books piece on the historic home of sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury captures the complications of LA’s real estate battle between the past, present, and future).

It’s also important that Lemon Cake is set during Rose and her brother’s coming-of-age. As Bender puts it in her entry to Book Club Cookbook, Rose’s talent means that “what is normally one of the most lovely and innocent parts of childhood comes packed with complication.” In my previous discussion about the literature of adolescence, I focussed on a line which appeared first in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then in Doctor Who, articulating the idea that a character, in coming to know who they are, is “still cooking.”

BUFFY: I’m cookie dough.  I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I’m going to turn out to be.

The magic at the heart of Bender’s novel complicates this metaphor. Cooking is what undermines Rose’s straightforward growth to adulthood. She is an outsider, compared to the “Downhill Girls” she sees coasting their way through their teens,  precisely because of what she tastes. Cooking reveals her mother’s secret sadness, and beyond that a wider, more complex world, with which Rose must learn to live. Rose’s struggle to understand her power leads to companionship, solace, and the truth about a family history of uncanny talents. It also leads to irrevocable loss, and the disappointment that Rose’s father has been unwilling to explore his own inherited abilities, for fear they would make his life a misery.

By the end of the novel, Rose comes to an accommodation with her ability which moderates its worst excesses. She even finds a way to use it for the good of others. Nonetheless, her compromise with the world remains imperfectly satisfying, and therefore “adult”. Rose remains, in a sense, as “out of tune with her time” as Munro. Perhaps we’re not yet done cooking, as we progress from adolescence to adulthood; but sooner or later, Bender seems to say, we will have to sit down to the meal we have prepared.

5 thoughts on “Textureless Space and the Sadness of Lemon Cake

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