A Lush Novel at the Nexus of Food, Pleasure, Wealth and Catastrophe


A couple of summers ago, as I drove through Oregon amid a record heat wave across the Pacific Northwest, I pulled over at a trailhead to eat a plum. Wildfires were burning, temperatures hovered around 100 degrees and the pine forest in front of me had been rendered ghostly, the edges of everything lost and faintly browned by smoke. It was a shock, then, to bite into the fruit and taste its disruptive sweetness, how fresh and pure it was in spite of the surroundings. It was the sort of thing that tears the mind and body in opposite directions — and as we face down a moment increasingly dominated by environmental crisis, this may be the ambivalent flavor of our future: sweet and bitter and full of contradiction.

C Pam Zhang’s second novel, the follow-up to her Booker-longlisted western “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” dwells with keen intelligence and rich insight at this nexus of food, pleasure, privilege and catastrophe, offering a mouthful of nectar that tastes faintly of blood. Set in a not-so-distant future where industrial-agricultural experiments carried out in America’s heartland have blanketed the globe in an intractable, crop-smothering smog, the novel is narrated by a talented unnamed chef whose calling feels obsolete in a world where the livestock have been slaughtered, vegetation has withered away and civilization’s survival rests on the bland, grayish back of a specially engineered mung bean flour milled from plants that can be grown under low light conditions.

When her application for the chef position at a remote, privately owned “elite research community” is accepted, she travels to its secret location in the Italian Alps that is mysteriously untouched by the blight, leaving behind a certain youthful idealism to pursue a destiny in excess of bare survival. Channeling something of the fatalistic nostalgia of Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover,” she narrates: “If I hesitated at my younger self’s declaration that everyone would taste my food, that cooking was an art neither frivolous nor selfish — well. I was no longer she who’d left California with scruples and ambition; as I did not know who I was, exactly, I molded myself to the application’s shape.”

La terra di latte e miele, as the area is called by the embittered Italian population that surrounds it, is an uneasy utopia where wealthy residents and resentful scientists jockey for the favor of their benefactors, a reclusive capitalist and his sharp-tongued daughter, Aida, a geneticist who masterminded much of the mountain’s research program breeding rare and even extinct varieties of plants and animals.

The chef, too, knows that the privilege of working in this elite sanctuary depends on winning the respect of her employers — but as her relationship with Aida turns emotional and sexual, the sharp hierarchy begins to blur. She grows more attached to the place, buoyed by luxuries like soufflé cheesecake and honey-braised veal, and thinks less and less about what the abundance before her says about the poverty and lack that she knows lies out of view.

But a bubble’s fate is always to burst, and it soon becomes obvious that this privileged oasis is built on unstable ground, subject to the will of government officials and to the whims of the wealthy investors who sustain its mission. By the time our protagonist realizes the extent of the deception she has contributed to, it’s too late to shift course — the disaster is too great for a single individual to prevent.

Lauded for the lean, taut prose of her debut, a historical novel following two orphaned siblings through Gold Rush California, Zhang veers unabashedly here into the decadence of language, a surplus of sensory texture and figuration. A sex scene that melds carnal and alimentary pleasures slides smoothly from “oysters swollen through butter” to “thighs cooled on glass, my hand a hot knife between,” while a memory of the wildly luxuriant dinners she created conjures a fabulous material excess that slips from the tangible into the transcendent: “Those meals of yolk and sudden juice, of larks’ bones crunching in the molars like the detonation of a small star, a black hole that swallows and makes irrelevant, infinitesimal, what came before, and what came after. The tongue is not the brain, that fizzing, keening, forever dissatisfied thing. The tongue speaks the transporting language of pleasure.”

There’s an ornateness to this prose that is missing from much contemporary fiction, which is arguably obsessed with holding the attention of a “typical” reader, one often imagined to have a short attention span and an interest only in the progression of plot. Instead, Zhang serves up delicacies one after another in quick succession, like in a multicourse tasting menu, resulting in a sensation of over-fullness that begins at last to turn the stomach — but this, too, is part of the author’s plan.

For although the novel functions, at first, as a celebration of pleasure, of the salvage and redemption of the sensual, of the lost muchness of a world attenuated by exploitation of all kinds, the final movements call the virtue of such luxuries into question. On a rare foray outside the bounds of the mountain, Aida and the chef give a small, priceless trove of honey-fleshed apples, the last of their kind, to a group of children who have been pursuing them through the streets of Milan. The children taste the rare fruits, and they spit their precious pulp out onto the street, disgusted. Their palates no longer crave the rarefied food of the elite, they’ve adapted to the new world and the obscure tastes that surround them. In this sense, the wealthy residents of the “Land of Milk and Honey” are the endlings of this new world, obsolete and doomed to disappear as their fragile lifestyles grow impossible to sustain. With their stubborn fixation on the privileges of the past, how could they inhabit a world governed by the strange new pleasures to come?

LAND OF MILK AND HONEY | By C Pam Zhang | 232 pp. | Riverhead Books | $28

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