“Food” — Donald Barthelme

Literature

I was preparing a meal for Celeste-a meal of a certain elegance, as when arrivals or other rites of passage are to be celebrated.

First off there were Saltines of the very best quality and of a special crispness, squareness, and flatness, obtained at great personal sacrifice by making representations to the National Biscuit Company through its authorized nuncios in my vicinity. Upon these was spread with a hand lavish and not sitting Todd’s Liver Pate, the same having been robbed from geese and other famous animals and properly adulterated with cereals and other well-chosen extenders and the whole delicately spiced with calcium propionate to retard spoilage. Next there were rare cheese products from Wisconsin wrapped in gold foil in exquisite tints with interesting printings thereon, including some very artful representations of cows, the same being clearly in the best of health and good humor. Next there were dips of all kinds including clam, bacon with horseradish, onion soup with sour cream, and the like, which only my long acquaintance with some very high-up members of the Borden company allowed to grace my table. Next there were Fritos curved and golden to the number of 224 (approx.), or the full contents of the bursting 53c bag. Next there were Frozen Assorted Hors d’Oeuvres of a richness beyond description, these wrested away from an establishment catering only to the nobility, the higher clergy, and certain selected commoners generally agreed to be comers in their particular areas of commonality, calcium propionate added to retard spoilage. In addition there were Mixed Nuts assembled at great expense by the Planters concern from divers strange climes and hanging gardens, each nut delicately dusted with a salt that has no peer. Furthermore there were cough drops of the manufacture of the firm of Smith Fils, brown and savory and served in a bowl once the property of Brann the Iconoclast. Next there were young tender green olives into which ripe red pimentos had been cunningly thrust by underpaid Portuguese, real and true handwork every step of the way. In addition there were pearl onions meticulously separated from their nonstandard fellows by a machine that had caused the Board of Directors of the S&W concern endless sleepless nights and had passed its field trails just in time to contribute to the repast I am describing. Additionally there were gherkins whose just fame needs no further words from me. Following these appeared certain cream cheeses of Philadelphia origin wrapped in costly silver foil, the like of which a pasha could not have afforded in the dear dead days. Following were Mock Ortolans Manques made of the very best soybean aggregate, the like of which could not be found on the most sophisticated tables of Paris, London and Rome. The whole washed down with generous amounts of Tab, a fiery liquor brewed under license by the Coca-Cola Company which will not divulge the age-old secret recipe no matter how one begs and pleads with them but yearly allows a small quantity to circulate to certain connoisseurs and bibbers whose credentials meet the very rigid requirements of the Cellarmaster. All of this stupendous feed being a mere scherzo before the announcement of the main theme, chilidogs.
“What is all this?” asked sweet Celeste, waving her hands in the air. “Where is the food?”
“You do not recognize a meal spiritually prepared,” I said, hurt in the self-love.
“We will be very happy together,” she said. “I cook.”

From Donald Barthelme’s short story “Daumier.”

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I Super Hated Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

At a certain point, I was inclined to write a thoughtful review of Gary Shteyngart’s much-lauded, truly awful novel Super Sad True Love Story, the kind of review that might try to weigh Shteyngart’s choked May-December romance against its dystopian background. That was a few chapters in, a point at which I’d gotten past the realization that Shteyngart was going to do nothing new with the dystopian genre I so love, yet still early enough for me to think that he might have something to say about American culture and politics in the early 21st century. There’s nothing there, though — Super Sad True Love Story subscribes to the normal dystopian program of synthesizing 1984 and Brave New World through a contemporary lens, yet what we’re left with is Shteyngart’s observation that people might not like to read as much as they used to.

Obligatory plot summary: it’s America a few decades down the line–not enough to account for the change that Shteyngart proposes–an America under Bipartisan rule, a country without an elected President, at war with Venezuela, heavily indebted to China, and essentially ruled by a corporatocracy. People no longer read, they only scan data from their ever-present “äppäräti,” screen media devices they are addicted to through which they shamelessly broadcast every last piece of personal data. Sound familiar? Sure. (Those damn kids with their Facebooks!)

Shteyngart’s hero is Lenny Abramov, son of immigrant Russian Jews. Lenny works for Post-Human Services, a company that aims to extend human life indefinitely– as long as you’re very, very rich. This is Lenny’s obsession. For some reason, never fully explained (although painfully and boringly explored) Lenny wants to live forever. I suppose Shteyngart is trying to parody America’s obsession with youthfulness, only the parody is not funny and never insightful. Lenny meets a Korean-American girl named Eunice Park while spending some Bohemian time in Italy. Eunice is twenty years his junior, yet Lenny falls madly for her right away, for no good reason, at least not for any reason that we, the readers, are given to understand. It’s real old-white-boy-meets-young-Asian-girl-territory, which Shteyngart seems to understand yet seems too embarrassed (rightfully) to properly remark upon.

The backdrop of this romance is an American dystopia that Shteyngart wishes was as affecting as Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. Hey, you know what? Watch Children of Men again instead of reading Shteyngart’s super boring book. And I think I won’t waste anymore time detailing Shteyngart’s super boring plot, a plot that seems to have no idea where its going, yet is, at all turns, overwhelmingly self-satisfied (and derivative). Shteyngart wants to write an end-of-America epic, yet nothing he says is worth re-remarking upon — yes, it seems like people are increasingly facile; yes, young people seem increasingly willing to forsake traditional ideas of privacy; yes, we owe the Chinese government some money. Sam Lipsyte does it all way better in The Ask, a book that doesn’t have to borrow its plot from every dystopian that came before it.

That Shteyngart has written a poor dystopian novel offends me at a literary-type level, but I’m also offended by his myopic regionalism, which, as I just mentioned, he tries to pass off as Americanism. For Shteyngart, New York City is America, and the (relatively) newly immigrated populations he places in his fictionalized NYC are far-more American than anyone else, particularly the dumb-ass-hick-redneck-Southerners he throws into the city as transplanted bad guys. Shteyngart’s Southern grotesques are mere props, barely thought out stereotypes that offend me as both a reader and a Southerner — and yet, they are just as facile as his leads.

Speaking of offensive and facile, there’s a moment at the end of the book when a critic takes the time to reflect on the publication of Lenny’s diaries and Eunice’s emails (not called “emails,” but Jesus Christ I’m not going to waste more time explaining the book’s silly recoding of contemporary culture) — it’s surreal in its tackiness, an overt act of literary criticism upon the rest of the book, one which attempts to focus a specific viewpoint upon the narrative proper. Like the rest of the book it fails miserably, and yet is indicative of Shteyngart’s needy, whiny program.

But why end negatively? There are plenty of great dystopian novels out there — Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, almost anything by William Burroughs, Disch’s Camp Concentration, Aldous Huxley’s sorely under-read Ape and Essence, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which understands that it’s always the end of the world, more or less all of Philip K. Dick, Riddley Walker, Cloud Atlas, shit, even Roberto Bolaño. Just don’t waste your time with Shteyngart’s super sorry book.