Read and Feed: A sweet chocolate cake pairs well with 'Sweetness #9'

Sweetness #9, a novel about an experimental sugar substitute, goes down smoothly with a slice of Chocolate Cassis Cake.
Sweetness #9, a novel about an experimental sugar substitute, goes down smoothly with a slice of Chocolate Cassis Cake.
Published Feb. 16, 2015

BOOK: In his debut novel, Sweetness #9, Stephan Eirik Clark exploits the widespread fear that food companies will gladly market products that promote obesity and other health problems if the profits are good enough. His protagonist, David Leveraux, is a "flavor chemist" whose first job after grad school involves feeding rats an experimental sugar substitute known as Sweetness #9, also known as "The Nine." Despite the adverse effects that appear in the animals (they develop "rage issues," for example, and become massively obese), the sweetener is marketed anyway, and becomes extremely lucrative for the company.

Leveraux decides to go along to get along, but the guilt he feels for failing to stop "The Nine" from reaching market never subsides, and eventually the effects of the product intrude upon his own life. Although he avoids the substance himself, his wife Betty becomes obese from using it, and his son develops a peculiar disability — he stops using verbs in his sentences. His daughter, in contrast, becomes an outspoken vegan natural foods crusader who remains unaware of her father's role in marketing "The Nine."

Like Don DeLillo's White Noise, Clark manages to blend the apocalyptic with the absurd, coaxing laughter from tragedy. Leveraux's mentor, for example, used to be a cook in Hitler's bunker. "I didn't just serve in the war," the man announces. "I served Hitler his dinner!" (Could this be a sly allusion to DeLillo's protagonist in White Noise, a professor who claims he invented Hitler studies in North America in 1968?) Leveraux lost his parents to Charles Whitman, the sniper who killed 16 people from a clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. And the book's epigraph consists of a quote by Ronald Reagan: "All great change in America begins at the dinner table."

WHY READ? Books about the American food industry tend to elicit fear, but by dealing with the abuses through dark comedy and satire, Clark elicits outrage as well as withering laughter. His book implicitly compares humans to lab animals — passive receptacles of harmful products that generate large profits.

Although Clark appears to be playing his subject matter for laughs, don't be surprised if you start to wonder what really produces the macadamia chocolate flavor in your coffee creamer, or the strawberry flavor in your yogurt.

MAKE IT: Although Sweetness #9 adds up to a clever indictment of artificial sweeteners, no one, not even Stephan Eirik Clark himself, would complain about sweetness itself, so any discussion of his book should be accompanied by a sweet treat, such as this Chocolate Cassis Cake from the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten.

Tom Valeo, Times correspondent