Review: How the Discovery of Sugar Produced the Romantic Era


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 115 in 2008.

Review of Bonny Finberg, How the Discovery of Sugar Produced the Romantic Era (New York: Sisyphus Press, 2007).

by Jim Feast

In closer-to-nature societies, young people at or just past puberty (usually men) go off in the wilderness for a spell of solitude and inner journey. When the person returns, he or she can be integrated into society because, already, this human has centered an individuality.
Bonny Finberg in her recent How the Discovery of Sugar Produced the Romantic Era, on the other hand, highlights a related, though anomalous behavior in modern American society, in which a middle-aged person--seemingly less by choice than because a long-term relationship has ended or because the character has drifted out of the orbit of all former friends--begins a vision quest by entering a long cube of isolation.
The brief, stark, finely tuned pieces in this collection flag some of the reasons the characters engage in this time of solitude and also, with real depth, points to the psychic cost (as well as the benefits) of such a state.
One of Finberg’s most penetrating observations, describing one of these questers, occurs at the opening of “Memory the Next”:

He’d been forgetting where he put things. ... Today
was especially bad. He’d paid for his lunch and left
the table carrying the empty water glass. He hadn’t
discovered it till he was at the door of the
restaurant. ... He was habitually distracted,
submitting to anything and everything.

The insight is this: The less one is involved with others, the less one knows oneself. The solitary loses touch with the moment, forgetting outward things because engaged obsessively in sterile internal chatter.
Unlike the girls and boys in earlier societies, who have gone to seek deeper links with their surroundings and self, these characters, as it turns out, avoid any but flitting contact with others because they don’t want to face themselves. (The “average” person accomplishes the same distancing by engaging in myriad, superficial contacts.)
But if one negates a nourishing inner and outer life, what is it replaced with? Again, Finberg’s eye is keen. She notes that these characters fill their time with homespun rituals, a studied aimlessness and occasional bursts of frenetic, soon aborted activity.
(Note, by the way, that contrary to what the depressing nature of the subject matter might suggest, these stories are breezy and charming, highlighting the incongruities and humorous aspects of the characters’ lives rather than somberly dwelling on their deficiencies.)
To return to our points, one of the characters has a morning ritual of this type.

He put a teabag into the teapot and checked the water, which was just beginning to liven up. He took down a mug and got a napkin from the cabinet and brought them to the table. The water rattled in the pot. He poured the water into the teapot and brought it to the table with a folded up kitchen towel that served as a hotplate. He did this every morning in the exact same way

Each day he drinks a stimulant while reading the newspaper. In other words, the usual preparations that one does before leaving for a corporate job, so one is properly hyped up and has culled enough trivia for the day’s small talk here (when the person is not going to work) takes on a life of their own, rituals that replace spiritual practices.
Another way to pass time, the loner’s infatuation with engrossing, slightly titillating and ultimately mindless pursuits, is skewered in “The Botanical Man.” In this story, a post office clerk who is too shy to approach or even talk to an attractive fellow worker, spends off hours reading about and getting aroused by the sexual characteristics of … plants.
An even zanier preoccupation appears in “What Remains of What Remains.” In this exquisite piece, a recluse who spies a mouse in his apartment begins fantasizing about it. Given that the protagonist, as he conceives himself, is such an extraordinary person, his mouse must be unusual. “This was no ordinary street mouse, [he thinks] but had clearly led the privileged life of a laboratory animal. … He wondered what form of acculturation it had been subjected to, what intellectual skills it had obtained.” He decides to build the mouse a pleasure palace, straight out of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. In the end, it has such features as:

a hedge leading from the door to a little meadow of Astroturf with a patch of large plastic sunflowers. It was surrounded by hills that rose into pink and violet peaks. There was a platform built of slate where two tiny Provencal pots held some Gorgonzola and a few crumbs of 7-grain bread.

These characters do occasionally break out of their vegatative shells of alienated work or graceless retirement to engage in a larger project, but it is inevitably one as daffy and fruitless as their other actions. In the story, “The Blind Man and his Mistress Eyes,” for example, two loners who like to go gallery-hopping together are walking to a show in Manhattan when they get the goofy thought of walking to Canada. They “followed the FDR north to the New England thruway.” However, in a comically deflating turn, they get no further than a cheap motel in White Plains where they watch a Gregory Peck movie on TV.
All in all, in this new book, it were as if Finberg had netted a tattered, but still luminescent butterfly, one never before recorded. She has delicately pinned down an emerging species of social withdrawal in which a person may still work and exist with seeming normalcy, but is actually, in a crucial way, closed in on him- or herself, evolving a new, ultra-circumscribed way of being.