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November 8, 2017

A friend of mine sent me a book last week for no particular reason except she was listening to it on audio and decided we should experience it together, so I of course dropped everything for a few minutes each day and read Robin Sloane’s new novel Sourdough. It’s a quick and easy read, and takes some sharp turns, which saves it from being another story about a woman who hates her job but loves cooking and eventually learns how to make a living at it. The last turn was the turn it gave me last night when I noticed that the book glows in the dark.

The woman who hates her job, Lois, works at a computer company where her job involves robot proprioception, which she describes as “the process by which organisms judge the position of their own body parts in space.” This is something I’ve never been very good at, and it became a joke with my kids when they were in high school, as Eleanor would say “I’m not very good at proprioception” and then flap her arm around so that it slapped her brother. Lois is trying to teach proprioception to a robot arm, and experiences repeated failure trying to figure out how to get the arm to crack an egg.

Lois also experiences what seems like pareidolia, which is something I’m extremely good at, seeing faces everywhere. She sees faces in the sourdough bread she makes with a starter given to her by a man she got acquainted with when he started delivering her dinner every night. Here’s one of the turns this book takes, though—it’s not just pareidolia; there really are faces in the bread.

The man who delivers her food moves away, but then he starts emailing her and this becomes a subplot in the novel. His background is mysterious and the starter he gives Lois proves to have unusual, maybe even magical qualities.

Louis gives up her computer job and buys a robot arm from the company, which she then succeeds in teaching to reliably crack an egg. She starts baking bread at an experimental farmer’s market where everybody is trying something new with food. Cricket cookies, for instance, unusual mushrooms and cheeses, even “a man selling barramundi that lived their whole lives in watery tubes extending deep into the depot’s corridors. Next to him, another man cleaned those fish and fried them into tacos on the spot, filling tortillas made from cricket flour and topping them with slaw made from cabbage grown in the pink-light rooms.” Some of the foods are produced with the help of microorganisms, like the cakes one woman is trying to get right so they can be “your quick lunch. It’s what you eat in the car. It solves food security, because once I get the microbial community stabilized, we’ll be able to produce it literally anywhere.”

The goal of this experimental farmer’s market is to build a new food system because “on both sides, they’ve failed us….the industrialists. Their corn syrup and cheese product. Their factory farms ringed by rivers of blood and shit, blazing bonfires of disease barely contained by antibiotic blankets….But on the other side…the organic farms, the precious restaurants…they are toy supply chains. ‘Farm to table,’ they say. Well. When you go from farm to table, you leave a lot of people out.’”

This novel is set in the San Francisco area, and there’s a restaurant called “Café Candide” that’s clearly based on a restaurant that exists in real life, and that I’ve been to. It’s in Berkeley (both in real life and in the novel) and its actual name is Chez Panisse.

The action takes yet another sharp turn when Lois’s starter becomes a character. Each morning, she says, it “greeted me like a puppy, yapping and leaping, excited to be alive.” She sees “ripples across its surface like laughter….bursts of luminescence”….and “a tiny pseudopod rising slowly like a periscope, wobbling back and forth, then retreating into the crock.”

After a cheesemaker shows Lois how bacterial cultures can “do things we only dream of” like “speak to one another with chemicals and light” and “form teams….Millions strong, all working together perfectly” Lois perks up her starter by giving it another starter to conquer. As she watches, she wonders “was I detecting signal flares launched above a vast battlefield? Or was it the wreckage of war—the broken remnants of armies cleaved apart? Was I smelling corpses?”

Eventually Lois has to repudiate her starter. She becomes worried that she might be creating a monster, but the microorganisms are already out of the bag; the woman who makes microbial cakes has loosed this monster for her own purposes. Lois gives in to the insistency of the subplot, and readers may find that following her subsequent decisions proves anticlimactic after the mystery and madness of the main plot.

But when I discovered that the cover glows in the dark, I felt less let down.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2017 2:44 am

    I can’t decide if this is for me or not, it definitely sounds intriguing! Weird, but intriguing!

    • November 9, 2017 10:01 am

      It’s weird but in a fairly conventional way. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up on my own, but my friend was looking for another novel by the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore and found this one.

  2. November 9, 2017 2:06 pm

    I felt the same way about this first book Mr. Penumbra’s. It sort of fizzled out for me. This does sound intriguing, but with so many other books calling me…

    • November 12, 2017 8:58 am

      This author has good ideas but doesn’t know how to bring them to a satisfying climax. It’s either that or he believes every novel has to end with a romance, which is sometimes not a satisfying ending to the interesting premise he began with.

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