Imagine if every problem your cranky grandparent might identify as part of the current “American condition” – whatever that is – could be blamed on a certain product. Anxiety-addled yet apathetic? Obese yet calorie-counting? Double-speaking to oblivion? In Stephen Eirik Clark’s Colbert-bumped debut novel Sweetness #9, the (possible) culprit for all negative facets of the American condition is a pink sugar substitute called Sweetness #9. The guilt-stricken narrator tested the substance on monkeys and rats in the ’70s, and spends most of his life trying to hide his involvement with the cloying agent responsible for American malaise.
The book attempts to riff on a very topical form of American satire: dystopian commodity horror – even more specifically, ingestible dystopian commodity horror (Soylent Green, White Noise, Brave New World, A Scanner Darkly, just about every story George Saunders has written). In a country so caught up in materialistic freedoms that it’s become enslaved by them, it makes a lot of sense that literary critiques would find their metaphors in consumer goods, and that those goods would be those which we literally devour — which, according to some, are also those which we become.
This symmetrical critique, while once incredibly powerful, feels somewhat diminished in Sweetness #9 – perhaps because it was already wrung dry last year by the hands of a dystopian commodity horror master (Saunders). Look on the jacket of any slightly genre-bending or satirical piece of literature from the last couple of years: you’re fairly likely to catch a blurb alluding to Saunders, likely because of the way he redesigns America through his assembly line of horrific products. But now that it’s so common, is it losing potency as a trope, or does Sweetness just buckle under its own heavy hand?
Sweetness’s America only becomes an alternate reality because of the presence of Sweetness #9. Everything else is the same: the book – which begins in the ’70s, occasionally stretches back to Nazi Germany, and galumphs forward to 2012 – is very much rooted in American history. Both the Watergate and Lewinsky scandals provide a backdrop for the narrator’s self-effacingly self-important fear of scandal; controversial companies like Monsanto, and similarly controversial drugs like Ritalin, are invoked. Sweetness’s only form of revisionism is the placement of these tiny packets of artificial sweetener on people’s tables, and thereby into their bodies.
You could replace Sweetness #9 with Sweet’N Low, and the book would read as something of a conspiracy-theorist reality, but the fictional name of the product, and the (possibly?) fictional side effects render it vaguely sci-fi. Clark strives for this ambiguity, but vocalizes his goal a bit too strongly, as when his characters themselves ponder whether they’re acting a certain way because of Sweetness #9 or because they, themselves, are products of America, essentially enacting the book’s question mark of a thesis. It’s totally interesting that the diminutive additive of a fictional artificial sweetener makes dystopian fiction out of American recent-historical fiction. As opposed to setting the book in a vague future (which seems more in vogue at the moment), it makes our familiar past seem like one of those in-vogue vague futures we’ve recently experienced, identified with, and thereby feared in better books.
George Saunders’ story “Escape From the Spiderhead” makes a similar effort, to far more powerful effect. Much like in Sweetness #9, the author hyperbolizes real-world innovations in medicine to question the origins and authenticity of human emotions. In Saunders’ story, a convicted criminal is used as a guinea pig, alongside other convicts, to test jauntily named serums that simulate (or is it not simulation…?) emotional extremes. The protagonist, an unimpressive specimen of his sex, is placed in a room with an unimpressive member of the opposite sex, and they’re understandably… unimpressed by one another. Then a drug is introduced into the couple’s bodies that makes them fall in love; they bone. When the administrator halts the IV drip, they quickly become disenchanted, and de-bone; the protagonist repeats this ritual with another woman, then his captors begin experimenting with a drug that engenders pain and misery, and excites the death-drive.
This story mines the most perplexing ontological question regarding psychiatric medication; similar to Sweetness #9, it wonders whether our emotional identity can be reshaped entirely by what we ingest. Yet its strange setting – vague and devoid of the details that remind us of our current reality – coupled with the inventiveness of its products, somehow make for a more universal but less hackneyed critique.
Clark, however, falters at showing the horror of Sweetness #9’s side effects. I never got the Darth-Vaderish sense of dread from the presence of these packets that I felt I was supposed to: it seems we should be scared by this product that makes people sedentary and suicidal (and randomly also sometimes makes them lose their verbs), but perhaps this is all so close to reality (GMOs, Soylent, pink slime) that it’d be more effective to either use reality or better obfuscate it, rather than ever-so-slighty genetically modify it. Ultimately, I felt the same way about Clark superimposing these malignant packets of sweetener onto the demise of Nazi Germany and the rise of American apathy as I might feel about a subway ad for, say, The Leftovers onto which someone’s Sharpied a bunch of dicks: yeah, dicks definitely exist beneath the surface (of pants), and maybe dicks are something that’s wrong with the world, but pointing that out is never quite as clever as you’d think.
Can Sweetness #9 not speak to me because it’s too ensconced in my reality, because I’m too generationally predisposed to apathy to be worried about being too apathetic? Does my apathy lead to my occasional ironic use of double-speak, and does this combination make me totally unable to relate to my own horrific condition? Or has Clark simply not used the dulling razor of American commodity horror to its fullest (diminished) ability? I think it’s probably the latter, and I’m realizing what the problem may be: we Americans, as literature would have us believe, expect the best from our possessions. If a book is going to sum up the American condition through a commodity, we won’t buy it unless it’s in some way superlative.