Books You Need To Read

Sweetness #9 and 6 More Sharp Modern Satires

Stephan Eirik Clark's Sweetness #9

If I checked my email right now, I’d wager there are better than 50/50 odds that there’s an email forward in there from my dad warning me that continuing to consume tdiet soda will slowly turn my spinal fluid into arsenic, except that won’t matter because by that point it will have already eaten small holes into my brain, leaving me a drooling imbecile (but a skinny one, amirite?).

Of course, this information, while…questionable, is never going to stop me from drinking diet soda, because I like diet soda, and it’s easier for me to appreciate the short-term pleasure of a jolt of caffeine than the dubious benefits of perhaps not dying from weird side effects in the indeterminate future. Live for today! That’s the American way!

That’s the logical fallacy that drives Sweetness #9, by Stephan Eirik Clark, an up-to-the-minute satire of the high-stakes world of the flavor industry—the chemical tinkering that goes into creating real flavors for entirely fake processed foods. David Leveraux thinks he’s won the chemist lottery when he lands his dream job as a “flavorist” for a secretive corporation, never mind that he has to start off in the animal testing department, determining whether the delicious additives the labs are cooking up have any unwelcome side effects. Side effects like, say, anxiety, obesity, and general malaise, which he discovers in animals given an experimental artificial sweetener called Sweetness #9.

David considers blowing the whistle but keeps quiet for the sake of his career, setting off a ripped-from-the-email-subject-lines debacle. Within a few years, Sweetness #9 is everywhere, and consequently everyone is eating a lot of it, and a lot of people are feeling anxious, and fat, and generally unhappy with their lives. But lots of us feel that way anyway, so is fake food really to blame? Is there something more damningly artificial at the core of our culture than simply the chemical bonds that make Twinkies taste good? Should we stop eating junk that makes us feel bad and take care of ourselves instead? Eh, that sounds like a lot of work.

If you’ve got a craving for more modern satires that illustrate the inherent absurdities of the modern American lifestyle, you can’t go wrong with any of the 6 titles below, though reading them in quick succession might trigger some kind of nervous breakdown. Which is par for the course, I suppose.

Thank You for Smoking, by Christopher Buckley
The jury might still be out on artificial sweeteners, but everyone has known for decades that cigarettes do very, very bad things to your body. So why do so many people still pay upwards of $8 a pack for the privilege of smoking them? In Buckley’s breakthrough 1994 novel (later adapted into a film of the same name), it’s because of guys like Nick, the slick spokesman for the tobacco industry, an amoral spin master with a tongue so silver he can turn a talk-show audience against a cute little kid with cancer. The book feels a little dated in an age where most big cities have turned smoking indoors into a capital offense, but it remains an addictive read.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers
My Facebook and Twitter habit might put my productivity at risk, but I don’t think my life is in any danger—not yet, at least. Eggers’ novel peeks into a future where social media has run amok and a giant mega-corporation known as The Circle has slowly started to take over every aspect of human interaction, ostensibly in the interest of keeping all of us a little more connected, or else. The novel is broad to the point of hilarity, but it’s also nearly impossible to put down.

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
If you’ve ever felt like a voiceless, faceless, interchangeable cog in the workplace machine, this is the book for you. Ferris writes in first-person plural, casting all of us as part of the exhausted, desperate staff of a rapidly downsizing ad agency struggling to survive the recession (no, not the last one, or the one before that…the dot-com one). Their dissatisfaction with busywork and inflated, meaningless titles becomes our own; their disappearance one by one from the narrative mirrors our own fears about impermanence, the unknown future, whether it really matters how we spend those 40 hours a week (if we’re lucky), and what happens when we can’t do it anymore.

Arts & Entertainment, by Christopher Beha
The misdeeds of failed actor Eddie Hartley drive this cutting novel about our collective preoccupation with fame in all its forms. It used to be people were renowned for doing important things or being exceptionally talented, right? Being generally untalented, and having done nothing of real import, Hartley is nevertheless well-suited to the current definition of fame, because he happens to be the ex-husband of an actually famous actress—and he has the sex tape to prove it. His decision to release it to gain a little notoriety (and no small amount of cash) sends his life into a tailspin, and lands his second wife her own soulless reality TV series about raising kids as the jilted woman. Hartley schemes his way onto the show in an attempt to rewrite the narrative, proving that these days, “reality” and reality are further removed than ever, even for the people living in it.

Fobbit, by David Abrams
Every generation has its war, and every war inspires at least one novelist to again make the case for the irrationality of the whole affair, from Slaughterhouse-Five to Catch-22. The latest round in the chamber is this debut from Abrams, a veteran of the most recent conflict in Iraq. The book follows a group of soldiers stationed at Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph, their duties consisting mostly of paper-pushing desk jobs and trying not to lose their minds from boredom, while just a few miles away their comrades face ambush by suicide bombers. It’s funny, disturbing look at characters who have found themselves an unwitting part of the support structure for an era of endless conflict.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
The other books on this list take down one facet of our culture or another, but in Super Sad, Shteyngart takes on all of it—from our tech addictions, to our celebrity obsessions, to our faltering economy, to our divisive politics, to our fumbling as we search for meaning in our work and lives. It’s a world where no one could heed the warnings within this book’s pages anyway, because in a post-literate society, reading actual words in (ugh) books is beyond the pale. Hapless Lenny Abramov stumbles through this accidentally dystopian landscape, struggling to find real connection in a world that favors the virtual, and actual substance in a society that exists purely on the surface.

What’s your favorite satirical novel?