Food and sex are life's two great physical passions, but for writers of fiction, the latter has always been a much more popular subject than the former. There are reasons for this. Sex provides the writer with the basic ingredients of compelling drama: two people, emotional complexities, action. The story practically writes itself. Thus, there are countless works exploring the pleasures of physical love. However, good writing about sex is comparatively rare; the subject lends itself all too easily to cliché and to the modesty of the ellipsis and the paragraph break.
There is no great literary tradition of writing about the pleasures of eating that I know of, although such works exist. Isak Dinesen's classic "Babette's Feast" and Joanne Harris' novel Chocolat are two popular examples. Both of these stories have been adapted into movies, and, indeed, in the cinema there is a thriving sub-genre of gastronomic films, including such remarkable works as Tampopo, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Big Night. These films are almost inevitably humanist in intent, perhaps because sharing a fine meal tends to bring out the best in people. (There are exceptions, such as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, which makes eating a metaphor for our base appetites.)
It isn't hard to understand why filmmakers have found it easier than writers to tell stories which focus on the experience of eating. In a movie, the camera does all the work: just point it in the direction of a well-prepared meal and our appetites will be stimulated. With little effort, food becomes a striking presence, almost a character, in the story. Writers face the harder task of having to use words to evoke the colors and tastes and smells and textures of food, and of making these descriptions compelling. Small wonder that they prefer to write about sex: it's so much easier to dramatize the relationship between a woman and her lover than a man and his dinner.
Jim Crace, the British author of Quarantine and Being Dead, takes on the challenge of writing fiction about food in his latest work, The Devil's Larder. Crace is a writer with a distinctive vision and, true to form, The Devil's Larder is unorthodox both in its structure and its approach to its subject. It is neither a novel nor, properly speaking, a collection of short stories. Rather, this neat little book consists of 64 brief tales, most of them ranging from one to four pages in length, each inspired by food and drink.
The Devil's Larder is akin to other unclassifiable works like Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, and Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars (fine relatives, indeed). Each of these books comprises a number of short pieces, unified by a recurring topic or structural conceit. They jettison conventional narrative techniques to create something which is sui generis. The stories in The Devil's Larder are thus not stories in the traditional sense; they are closer in spirit to fables or tall tales or parables or even Zen paradoxes. There is no shortage of people, but there are no "characters" as we are accustomed to think of them. It is an entire cast of supporting players, each with little dialogue to speak and only a brief moment in the spotlight.
If there is a central character in Crace's book, it is the narrator, who assumes many guises -- confidant, gossip, man, woman, the intimate "I" of the first person, the invisible persona of the third person -- but is always recognizable as Jim Crace. Those familiar with the author's works know his voice: it is fresh, eloquent, witty, concise. They also know that he is fond of including invented details in his fiction. I have read only two other books by him, but I spotted Boulevard liqueur, manac beans, the imaginary writers Mondazy and dell'Ova, and other creations particular to his oeuvre; doubtless there are more. These details are irrelevant to an understanding of what is going on, but for those who recognize them, they are like little gifts from the writer, rewarding the devoted reader with privileged knowledge. They allow the experienced Crace reader to feel at home in his fictional world, which exists at a slight remove from our own.
Aside from Crace's writerly persona, the only constant in The Devil's Larder is food, although there is nothing constant in the author's approach to the topic. Few of the stories are overtly fantastic, but most are, at the very least, improbable, and they never feel derivative or uninspired. There is the story of the "Air & Light," a trendy restaurant which serves only atmosphere; in so doing, it combats "the countless tyrannies of food" and celebrates "emptiness in an otherwise oversated world." Then there are the science students who invent euphrosyne, a substance which induces uncontrollable laughter; they want to sell it as a coating for bar snacks like peanuts, but its "shocking chemical mirth" is deemed unmarketable. And there are the amateur historians who, on the 500th anniversary of a famous siege, dine on leather stew seasoned with "the salt from shore weed," mimicking the diet of people who had to live without fresh food for 14 months. The book is remarkable for its inventiveness and its knack for the unexpected.
Crace avoids lavish descriptions of what is being consumed, cooked, or coveted. Instead, he invokes the delight of eating through sheer variety: the book is stuffed with a cornucopia of edibles and potables, from homely essentials like soup, eggs and bread to exotic kumquats, "soft-bodied spiders," buffalo cheese and even more fanciful and untraditional fare. Such is the bounty of The Devil's Larder that it is impossible to convey its plenitude without recapitulating all 64 stories.
But what, you might ask, is the point of it all? It is hard to discern a unifying intent. As the title might suggest, many of the stories echo the story of Eve partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; our inability to resist the temptation of food becomes emblematic of our lesser qualities: greed, self-deception, malice and so on. But other stories are playful or celebratory, refuting the notion that our animal appetites are merely a reflection of our sins, of our fall from grace. Perhaps Crace means only to show that the variousness of food mirrors the variousness of human nature; if so, it is a credit to his talent that this short book manages to cover something like the entire spectrum of our emotions.
Angela Carter once described Dictionary of the Khazars as "neither tofuburger nor Big Mac, but a Chinese banquet, a multiplicity of short narratives and prose fragments at which we are invited, not to take our fill, but to snack as freely or as meagerly as we please on a wide variety of small portions of sharply flavored delicacies"; this description could serve, culinary metaphor and all, as an apt description of Crace's ingenious book. Carter goes on to note that the "mother-type of these feast-like compilations is The Arabian Nights Entertainment," and it is entirely possible that the impulse behind The Devil's Larder is the same as the impulse behind The Arabian Nights Entertainment. In other words, the tales exist solely for the joy of telling them. To look for meaning is beside the point. Crace indulges his love of storytelling the way a gourmand indulges his love of food: for pleasure rather than nourishment. It is perhaps best to read the book in the same spirit. | October 2001