issue 4, vol. 1 // Eaten Back to Life by Jonah Campbell

Reviewed by Karen Palmer

Jonah Campbell, a wine manager in Montreal and the author of Food & Trembling, is an eater focused on the small details. Not the way a few grains of spice can change a recipe’s flavour, but what rumbles through one’s mind as tastebuds brush against tastebuds while eating tongue.

Campbell’s latest collection of food writing, Eaten Back to Life, isn’t about ancient cooking techniques or, as he calls it, “the sort of orgiastic, high-sensualist, macho hyperbole” that has become the hallmark of the genre. It’s not about the dish—it’s about the experience of eating that dish, a deeply intellectual take on food that often focuses on the rituals and ambience that can or should influence how we feel about what we’re eating.

In “Hot Dogs on the Brink of Insanity,” Campbell takes us on an alcohol-fuelled trip to Niagara Falls, the sort of lark that begins with a bar-stool dare and barrels headlong into a hazy binge of watery beer and bourbon shots and his ultimate quest to find a dish amongst the gaudy chain eateries that will provide some relief from his crushing hangover. 

“Hot Dogs” is one of Campbell’s lighter pieces. He writes vividly about the mild depression that haunts the Thanksgiving table, the nostalgia of cocktail bars-cum-tourist traps, the sensation of “biting up” through a candy bar’s caramel layer, and whether the flavours often associated with Scotch—tar, peat, trawling ropes, plastic buckets—should ever, in fact, be consumed. 

The collection is described on the book’s jacket as “overly intellectualized meanderings,” and Campbell’s thoughts about anti-colonial eating, engineered meats, and trends in food and wine writing certainly qualify. His writing can veer toward the precious (“I am infatuated with this Calvados. I want to hold a cup of it between fantastically callused hands as I wake up with the sun. I want to appreciate it in a yellow pavilion between rounds of Russian roulette with a jealous baron”), but the philosophical flourishes are tempered with a clever wit and personal reflections that will challenge readers to think more deeply about their own eating experiences.   

I confess that these essays grew on me once I understood the book’s title. I’d been expecting a food memoir—perhaps a collection about eating experiences that had made the author feel more alive. Instead, Campbell explains in an author’s note that “Eaten Back to Life” is actually a reference to an album from a Florida death-metal band. He dissects the title, eventually noting: “Food, like life, is but another ever-twisting hole down which you descend, chasing some sense of satisfaction. You never truly reach the end; you just run out.”

Posted on June 16, 2017 .

issue 4, vol. 1 // Transit by Rachel Cusk

Reviewed by Nathan Whitlock

Holden Caulfield, the disaffected hero of The Catcher in the Rye, famously declared: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

Rachel Cusk is not that kind of author. Cusk—who was born in Saskatoon, but grew up and lives in England—writes books that, for all their astonishing and subtle brilliance, make you glad you’ll probably never meet her. Her work never seeks to comfort, flatter, or befriend. Instead, her prose is dark, sardonic, controlled, and intense, like someone giving you very bad news without taking any pleasure in your discomfort—she’s not a rub-the-reader’s-nose-in-it kind of writer—but making no effort to spare your feelings. 

Transit is her newest novel and a kind of sequel to 2015’s Giller Prize–shortlisted Outline. It extends and perfects what Cusk has called the “annihilated perspective” of the previous book, in which we are given very little information about the narrator, who becomes a kind of conduit for the stories of other characters. We know she is a middle-aged author, creative writing teacher, and single mom with two sons. We know, too, that she is working through the after-effects of an unhappy divorce. Almost everything else about her we learn through her interactions with others. (Her name, Faye, is only mentioned one time in Transit.)

Faye purchases—on a perverse whim—a rundown home and hires contractors to gut and renovate, while enduring abuse from the hateful old couple who live in the basement. The slow-moving renovations hold together the narrative, and also provide it with its thematic core, which is how people deal with periods of transition. (Hence the title.) In the meantime, Faye appears at a literary festival, meets a man who signals a possible shift toward romantic happiness (or not), and attends a turbulent dinner party at the home of her cousin. During it all, she keeps coming up against other people’s perceptions of change and stasis.

This seeming lack of incident is deceptive. Cusk, though on the other end of the scale of author affability from, say, Alexander McCall Smith, is the rare capital-L Literary writer who can make an entire novel about irresolution feel as gripping and binge-worthy as any thriller. 

Posted on June 16, 2017 .