Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark Review

A debut novel about an artificial sweetener avoids the saccharine and lands as touchingly real

Napoleon Bonaparte said that an army marches on its stomach. Today, it’s fair to say our stomachs are what would keep many of us from fighting, marching, or doing much else strenuous—and in Stephan Eirik Clark’s Sweetness #9, we see one reason why. The novel traces a fictionalized path from the laboratory to the table that saps his characters’ health, will, and clarity as they consume a lifetime of synthetic flavors and foods engineered to please.

Clark, a teacher at Augsburg College, set the story to begin in the early 1970s, revolving around a chemist named David Leveraux. He’s ambitious and idealistic, and when he lands a job at a commercial food-flavoring manufacturer, he dreams of constellations of chemicals to tickle the country’s taste buds. Trouble visits when he’s put in charge of monitoring test monkeys to see how they respond to a new sweetener (called #9): The primates gobble it up, and promptly grow distressingly overweight, disengaged from life, and prone to brooding silence and compulsive television consumption.

Not that any of us have ever seen such conditions in humans.

You’d be forgiven at this point for concluding that this is a book that hits you over the head with its societal commentary, but there’s also a matter of context. Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me have already amply made the point that, a generation from now, consuming much of today’s mass-produced food will probably seem as wise as smoking a carton of cigarettes would today. Sweetness #9 treads the same territory, but with the subtlety of a rich tale.

Our flavorist David, it turns out, is a man who grows gradually more distraught as the decades pass. His marriage devolves from passion into routine and his children grow into distant and surly teens bristling with disapproval for their elders (the latter perhaps not entirely due to food-chemical influence).

David is equally lost at work, where his idealism fades and his younger counterparts mystify him with their attitudes embodying the shifting American cultural landscape.

In its way, Sweetness #9 is a surprisingly gentle story about the passage of time, and Clark leads us through the years to a poignant ending that satisfyingly pulls at the heart. For a story about artificial sweeteners, and trying to understand where to draw the line between the confusion of the head and the gut, it’s fully rewarding. Bittersweet, even.

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.