Photo credit: Alice Neale
Stranded in the jungle without much to eat, a character in my new novel Madness Is Better Than Defeat
ponders "whether there might not be a microbe somewhere... that would transmute rotting vegetable matter into a nutritious jelly," and "how greatly preferable it would be to eat a nutritious jelly twice a day instead of unpredictable meals." As happens so often with my work, readers will assume this is supposed to be a indictment of how weird and misguided this particular character is, when in fact it is basically me, the author, talking. During a working week at home in London, I do indeed eat a nutritious jelly several times a week, or at least the closest thing I can find to one: namely, a shake made from meal replacement powder and frozen berries.
If you've heard of meal replacement powders, it's most likely because you've read an article about Soylent, the smash-hit protein goop that was recently banned in Canada for not being real food. As Calum Marsh has observed in the Toronto National Post
, it's difficult even to admit to people that you drink Soylent, because they often take it "as a kind of personal violation: a loathsome, even offensive transgression of accepted culinary practice that somehow (they feel) is an act of aggression against them. I’ve been asked more than once to defend my choice; a few people have been highly and unusually invested in proving to me that drinking Soylent is not merely distasteful but aesthetically and perhaps even morally wrong."
Ditto. People always grimace when I mention it. I think this is because, for those who love food, Soylent feels anti-food. But I don't drink meal replacement shakes because I hate food; on the contrary, I drink them because I love food too much. Last year I spent a month travelling around southeast Asia, where you can take your pick of the best food you've ever had in your life, right on the street, for pennies, served to you almost instantly. After that, the thought of returning home to Britain, which has one of the bleakest food cultures of any country in the world, was so demoralizing that I resolved I would never eat a bad meal again. From then on, I would only eat a good meal, or no meal at all — meal replacement shakes qualifying, for me, as no meal at all, because they go down so quickly and leave so little sensory impression.
(Because Soylent isn't distributed in Europe, I actually drink a Dutch competitor which used to be called Joylent, but then they changed the name to Jimmy Joy because of a legal challenge from Soylent, and then they repackaged a second time because, as one guy pointed out on Reddit, "Jimmy Joy sounds like a sex product." Now it's called Plenny Shake, which isn't a great name either, so for simplicity's sake I'm just going to carry on referring to it as Soylent.)
To me, a writer facing down his or her manuscript should...be like a projectile optimized in a wind tunnel, with even the tiniest aerodynamic encumbrance polished down into a perfect curve. In other words, no, I am not going out to pick up guacamole.
Above all, I believe that meal replacement shakes are a gift to writers. In this Vice
article about writers' lunches, the writer I identify with the most is Helen DeWitt
, who reports that "I don't want to spend a lot of time thinking about lunch, so I employ fast and frugal heuristics: I think of a lunch I know I will like and buy in bulk so I don't have to think about lunch again for at least a week." She would be a perfect candidate for meal replacement shakes! They should be sending her free samples.
The writer I identify with the least, on the other hand, is Rick Moody
, who on this occasion has apparently eaten "some salad, which is constituted of greens from the farm market upstate, some grape tomato, the last little bit of fresh mozzarella, salt and pepper (no dressing), a toasted piece of golden-raisin walnut bread from the farmer's market at Grand Army Plaza, and either a yogurt or some fruit, like green grapes or some cherries or something." Are you kidding me? When I'm writing, I refuse to give a single thought to my lunch until I stop work at exactly 1 p.m. It is preposterous to imagine I would ever make a working lunch involving several perishable ingredients, which will have to have been bought in advance from at least two different places, and which, by the way, is a salad of all things, meaning I will start vividly fantasizing about dinner from about 1:30 p.m. onward. (Whereas Soylent makes me feel full but not sleepy.)
Again, I'm not anti-food. I love to cook. I make my own chili oils and cinnamon syrups. I could probably be a D-list recipe blogger if I wanted. I just don't want to be a D-list recipe blogger when I'm in the middle of a tricky paragraph. At this point in essays like this it is obligatory to quote Flaubert's dictum to writers: "Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." I agree. To me, a writer facing down his or her manuscript should, if possible, be like a projectile optimized in a wind tunnel, with even the tiniest aerodynamic encumbrance polished down into a perfect curve. In other words, no, I am not going out to pick up guacamole.
In Madness Is Better than Defeat
, another character has the exact opposite reaction to the privations of rainforest life: he demands that his personal chef contrive for him a simulation of eggs Benedict made from "dry-cured peccary ham and poached wild duck eggs on an unleavened manioc-flour muffin with a hollandaise sauce made from wild duck egg yolk, breadnut butter, and juice of the unripe marlberry," because he can't imagine going without his favorite meal. And this character is speaking for me, too, just as much as the last one I quoted. I don't think there's any contradiction between enjoying food in an extravagant, emotional, obsessive way each night and then, the next day, when work is all that matters and all the choices before you are inadequate, onerous, and/or expensive, preferring instead to avoid the whole problem by consuming a substitute so ineffable it's as if 45 grams of protein and 84 grams of carbohydrates and 14 grams of fat had simply teleported themselves into your digestive tract.
After all, I worship the prose of Nabokov
, but I do not insist that furniture assembly instructions or airport loudspeaker announcements should be "beautifully written"; far better, in fact, that no such primping is even attempted, otherwise what you end up with is the sickeningly cutesy marketing copy on the tasteless corporate sandwich that Soylent liberates me from resorting to when I'm famished. Allow the luxurious to be utterly luxurious, and the utilitarian to be utterly utilitarian — for a writer, I don't think there's a better credo.
÷ ÷ ÷
was born in 1985, and studied philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He was included on Granta
’s 2013 list of the 20 Best Young British Novelists, and his work has been translated into more than 10 languages. He lives in London. Madness Is Better Than Defeat
is his most recent novel.