Friday, July 16, 2010

The Special Disappointment of a Failed Conceit

When does a conceit become gimmicky? Or when does a gimmick rise to the level of a conceit? I’ve been thinking about this for the last few days, trying to formulate something more substantial than “I know it when I see it.” It’s not going particularly well.

I’d never really thought about this distinction before reading Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Usually, a gimmick announces itself loudly and plainly: stuffed crust pizza, a special holder in the dashboard for flowers, every storyline with “amnesia,” television shows with judges.  Hooks like these are supposed to get you in the door, but they aren’t the show itself; they are the amuse-bouches of modern commerce, the sizzle that sells the steak.

But conceits are different. Conceits look like gimmicks. Probably some people think that competitive cooking is the conceit of Iron Chef, though it’s just a gimmick, like bearded ladies or everything David Blaine does. The goal of a gimmick is differentiation, but the goal of a conceit is something deeper.
In fact, conceits are as old as the novel itself. In the Decameron, Boccaccio imagines 10 young courtesans fleeing plague-ravaged Florence for the countryside, telling rowdy and ribald stories along the way.  Cervantes came up with perhaps the best conceit ever-the simple, almost believable idea that an obsessive reader of medieval romances might come under the belief that he himself is a knight-errant. Like fiction itself, a good conceit uses the unreal to uncover and examine something about the real. Don Quixote’s delusion disjoints him from the society of his day, and the way characters react to him forms the center of Cervantes’ commentary on Spanish morality. (Alan Moore’s Watchmen is one of the better contemporary analogues; his proposition that superheroes are “real” allows him to explore power and control in ways both unexpected and fascinating.)

So perhaps this higher-calling of the literary conceit is the reason that Bender’s latest novel was such a disappointment. The conceit (we’ll go with term  for a minute) is pretty clever, and when I’ve told people about it, the universal response has been “That sounds kinda cool.” So here it is. On her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein discovers, while eating a birthday cake made for her by her mother, that she can taste the feelings of others.  Not bad, right? (Have you noticed that nine out of ten cooks interviewed on the Food Network say that “love” makes their food special? How can “love” make it special if everyone says that? I want someone to say “Actually, it’s a gripping fear of death that makes my hamburgers so moist.”)

Indeed it’s a good hook, and Rose’s realization, detected somewhere between the butter and sugar of the cake, that her mother is fundamentally unhappy with her life jolts Rose into a premature adulthood (I’m assuming, for the moment, that being an adult corresponds with recognizing that other people have, you know, feelings). This happens in the first dozen or so pages of the novel, leaving the 250 or so remaining pages for Bender to explore the ramifications of this little skill/curse. But….nothing much happens.

Rose goes to school. She tries, unsuccessfully, to make friends. She avoids eating food made by people she knows, and when possible eats mass-produced food as it has the bare minimum of human emotion in it. She gets interested in cooking. And that’s pretty much it. About one hundred pages in, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is like many other earnest, well-meaning coming-of-age novels. No worse, but not a whole lot better.

And it’s really quite disappointing. Bender writes well and Rose is the kind of lonely, likable (though perhaps by now overly familiar) child protagonist that readers tend to cheer for. But there is a missed, and I’m tempted to say wasted , opportunity for Bender to chart the hiddenness of our daily lives. It is a strange choice to give Rose this ability and then spend the novel having her avoid it. Indeed, the reader is likely to feel much the same hollowness in the novel that Rose detects in her mother:
None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness. My mother’s able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it.


  1. What a shame! I've also been drawn in by the concept (or whatever you'd like to call it) of this novel. It's just such a shame when these things don't follow through.

  2. Great review.

    I really enjoyed your little preamble about gimmicks and conceits, very enlightening.

    As for the novel itself. Perhaps this is what happens when writers sort of follow behind what has gone before instead of breaking new ground?

  3. Yes, it was that hook, that conceit, that made me want to read this. [No, I haven't, though.] It's interesting. And I'm expecting more from the author: It's a challenge for her to not make this fluff, not a Lifestyle Channel special.

    When you say you're tempted to say that it was a wasted opportunity -- Do you think it ought to have been grittier? That is, did it really veer to close to being fluffy?

    Oh, and: I want someone to say “Actually, it’s a gripping fear of death that makes my hamburgers so moist." I would so eat that burger.

  4. Mayowa- I'm not sure it's a copycat problem, but that somewhere along the way, we've mistaken gimmicks for conceits. That is, the literary trick has been confused for what the trick allows the writer to do.

    Not grittier exactly, but more fully explored. It's not fluffy (I understand this to mean light, naive, and insubstantial); like I said, there is a some pain and loneliness here and a spoilerish thing that happens that tries to lend the book some weight (I think unsuccessfully though).

  5. can someone please explain what the hell was the brother's skill about?