Mary Roach writes bestsellers, and a reviewer might be tempted to attribute her success to her choice of subjects, which traffic mostly in taboos about the human body, and which are often succinctly described in a subtitle which follows a high-octane, memorably single-word title. To name three: “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.” “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.”
These titles make big promises. Implicit in them is the notion that the reader is not only going to get the science and the prurience, but also (Stiff, Spook, Bonk) a fair acquaintance with good humor, wordplay and the music language can make. When these promises pay off – and in Roach’s books, they always do – it’s more pleasure than learning, which is an extraordinary thing to say about books so packed with previously esoteric information hard won by research.
So it goes with Roach’s new book, “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” newly available in a riveting audio edition ably narrated by Emily Woo Zeller. She begins on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, where in 1968 six men spent two days in a metabolic chamber as human test subjects for NASA, an agency then worrying the practicalities of sending men to Mars. The task was to eat meals made of dead bacteria, to see if it might be possible to recycle human waste into “bioregenerated” food. The result was a catastrophic failure, which Roach, characteristically, serves up as a comic deflation: “Some in the field looked askance at the work.”
Roach is not one to look askance at the work. She claims her material proudly (“The pie hole and the feed chute are mine”), and parses the science out of ordinary curiosity of the daily sort, as a stand-in for the reader who has surely been asking the same questions:
“Could thorough chewing lower the national debt? If saliva is full of bacteria, why do animals lick their wounds? Why don’t suicide bombers smuggle bombs in their rectums? Why don’t stomachs digest themselves? Why is crunchy food so appealing? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis?”
Soon we’re in the nose, the place where, it turns out, most of the tasting happens. (Who knew?) Roach tags along with a sensory analyst bound for a wine tasting, tries out for the UC Davis Olive Oil Taste Panel (she fails the tryout miserably), pokes around in sensory science journals, and somehow stumbles onto a team of Canadian researchers who tried to test the taste of cat food on human subjects, a correspondence which gives Roach the opportunity to write the best transitional sentence I’ve ever seen in a work of nonfiction not written by Joan Didion: “But humans, as we are about to see, are not cats.” Which leads, of course, to an entire chapter on how your pet is not like you, alimentary-wise. Its title: “I’ll Have the Putrescine.”
It’s possible that the listener, like every bookstore in America, will have pre-sorted Mary Roach and her books into this or that marketing category. I usually see her books, when they’re not on a front table display, shelved in those narrow-interest categories in the far corners of the store. But while listening to “Gulp,” and then buying and reading a hard copy because I so admired what I had heard in the audiobook edition, I began to think that Mary Roach is that rare sort of writer who causes the categories to break down. It’s true that W.W. Norton recommends “Gulp” be shelved among the science books, but I have spent time on that aisle, and although it is full of the rapidly multiplying wonders of our newish century, it is also, despite a few exceptions, full of prose that makes me want to close the book and place it respectfully back on the shelf, where a more patient reader can find and enjoy it.
But “Gulp” isn’t written that way. Mary Roach’s closest analogues in the bookstore are really the uber-intelligent sometime-humorists more often shelved in the essay section, near the poetry and the fiction, her true kin: David Foster Wallace, Ian Frazier, Lawrence Weschler, Steve Almond . . .
The difference is in the strong kindness Roach offers the reader. She seems congenitally incapable of writing a boring sentence, she is always clear, and she tells stories instead of dumping facts. She’s also appealingly weird. When parsing life at the oral processing lab, she offers us “A Bolus of Cherries,” and when contemplating the possibility of Elvis Presley’s megacolon (“and other ruminations on death by constipation”), she describes her subject like so: “I’m All Stopped Up.”
Most enjoyably, and although she always takes her subject seriously, she gets great mileage out of not taking herself too seriously. The book, in fact, ends at the confluence of the four qualities we might as well begin to describe as “Roachic”: seriousness on behalf of the subject, irreverence with regard to everything, a general temperamental strangeness, and constant destruction of the utility of the question “So what?” because, for all the funniness, the thing most at the center of “Gulp” (besides the stomach and the intestines) is the idea that the subject is worth pursuing precisely because it is one of the most important subjects in the world. Roach writes:
“Most of us pass our lives never once laying eyes on our own organs, the most precious and amazing things we own. Until something goes wrong, we barely give them thought. This seems strange to me. How is it that we find Christina Aguilera more interesting than the inside of our own bodies? It is, of course, possible that I seem strange. You may be thinking, Wow, that Mary Roach has her head up her ass. To which I say: Only briefly, and with the utmost respect."
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