When author Stephan Eirik Clark read Fast Food Nation in 2001, he didn't know it would inspire him to write a fictional account of the food industry.
"Flavorings were like gravity or electricity — something that was all around me but that I had never paid any attention to," Clark tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And as soon as I read that book and its chapter on food product design, I started to ask myself, 'How important are these to the foods?' I started to question if I was really eating food or just the idea of food."
Clark started asking himself all sorts of questions that led him to write his novel Sweetness #9.
"With these molecules, you can make something taste like grass or roasted chicken, and what is it covering up? What is it supporting? What is it enhancing?" Clark says. "All of these questions and philosophical ideas that sprang out of this simple industry just went off — and I found myself deep into a novel."
Sweetness #9 takes a satirical look at over two decades of food wars, family life and American culture.
The main character, David Leveraux, is a flavor chemist who starts his career in 1973 at a company whose new product is an artificial sweetener called Sweetness #9.
His job is to test the product on lab rats and monkeys and monitor the health effects. He reports a lot of side effects that are covered up by the company.
Sweetness #9 soon becomes the artificial sweetener used in diet drinks, and many other foods, and is also marketed in little packets for use in coffee and tea. When Leveraux sees Americans overcome by the symptoms he found in the lab animals — like obesity, rage, depression — he feels personally responsible for not having blown the whistle on the manufacturer.
"It's not an anti-flavorings novel," Clark says. "It does, I hope, look at it in a way that includes the complications and the contradictions and the good and the bad."
On his main character
I read a lot of books about heroes or people who are very right-minded, and I didn't want to write a book that was going to be looking at what is right with food, where somebody was righteously talking about, "This is what food should be." I wanted somebody who, like most of us, puts his faith in the American food system and slowly begins to question it.
He's in the middle of the industry. He's making these flavorings, and he hasn't paid much attention to it until things start to happen to his family and his wife and his child. And he has to start to question, "What am I doing and what are we eating?" If he was somebody who was more heroic, who knew the answers from the start, he wouldn't have had any change to go through.
On a new kind of family drama
I wanted to write a family drama, but I didn't want to write the same old family drama that we've all seen. So I wanted to first set it in the world of food because it allowed me to use a new vocabulary, a new language and a new metaphor system to talk about family dysfunction. And then I wanted to do something that hadn't been done before, so the son speaks without verbs. That was a great challenge for a writer — how do I write somebody who can't use any verbs? That was fun.
On alluding to Lolita in the footnote with the line, "You can always count on a flavorist for a fancy prose style." (The Lolita quote is: "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.")
Nabokov is perhaps my favorite writer, Lolita perhaps my favorite novel. It too is a memoir told by somebody who is looking back on what he's done. [Protagonist] David later on does question whether or not he is a murderer, if not a literal one than a metaphorical one. He's been responsible for helping launch this sweetener into the American food system, and he doesn't know if it has caused untold number of problems — perhaps causing anxiety, apathy, obesity; perhaps causing some things that have led to premature deaths. So he feels a little bit like a murderer — and I think that's a literary way to first allude to that early in the novel.
But also, at the same time, a flavorist is someone who is very much interested in artistry, so he wouldn't have a plain, unadorned prose style. ... It's a very creative field with all of these notes, like a musician would have notes — a little bit of vanilla, a little bit of butterscotch, put a little dark chocolate note in there, and the arrangements of these flavors is what creates these subtleties of something that's good rather than just something that is a bald and unappetizing flavor.