Mary Roach’s new book whets the palate

Adventure through the digestive tract in ‘Gulp’ by Mary Roach

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What would happen if you decided to eat a page of Mary Roach’s new book “Gulp”? First, you would garner the befuddled stares of your peers, an onlooker would definitely question whether he was in fact dreaming or not, but then the rudimentary biological processes would begin. A potent cocktail of water, electrolytes, mucus, antibacterial compounds and enzymes would descend upon that paper (hopefully a nice, tasty birch-based paper) like a violent deluge out of any Roland Emmerich movie.

This is stimulated saliva. It neutralizes pH levels, dissolves starches and fats and rather effectively clears away food stains with an aggressive determination far beyond any of your mother’s leading brand detergents. It is also the life-long passion of scientist Erika Siletti.

In a “sunny top-floor lab in the Dutch town of Wageningen,” Siletti witnesses scenarios like the one posited above every day. She watches people chew, swallow and secrete in the same, almost obsessive way Andries Van der Bilt observes humans gnaw silicone in the Netherlands or 19th century bonbon vivant William Beaumont inspected and dissected the digestive process of his patient and captive Alexis St. Martin. They are all scientists, with one overwhelming and intoxicating shared interest — the alimentary canal. And, with “Gulp,” Mary Roach probes their lives, contributions and tastes with the same cutting precision with which Siletti surveys spit.

For the last ten years, Roach has exposed the eccentric underbelly of science to popular audiences. From “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” to the supernatural to the science of sex (actually titled “Bonk,” not the sequel to “Stiff”), she has infiltrated and compiled anecdotes, facts and people centered around the taboo topics of the human form. It’s a winning recipe that rewards the passing inquiry with an intelligent, entertaining and jocular narrative. With “Gulp,” she returns to this formula and serves us what may be her finest work to date.

This is not to say “Stiff,” “Bonk,” “Spook” or “Packing for Mars” were somehow lacking. They, as well as “Gulp,” all contain a series of bizarre stories steeped in the puzzling-yet-provocative intersection between passing curiosity and active experimentation. Why, there’s a damn smorgasbord of them in “Gulp.” There’s Howard Fletcher, an early 20th century gadfly whose self-branded method of mastication — chewing vigorously until liquification — became the favorite of Franz Kafka, John Harvey Kellogg and one “anonymous writer” with “excreta in the form of nearly round balls.” There’s Michael Levitt, a scientist of flatulence who invented “the flatus-trapping Mylar ‘pantaloon.’”

What makes “Gulp” a cut above the rest is not the quality or absurdity of the stories involved, but how Roach cleverly trusses them together through the progressive narrative arc of the digestive system.
Despite a brief, fascinating entree into the world of domestic pet- food production, Roach’s structure mirrors the course of human digestion. She begins with the senses, with the ambiguity of taste and the American cultural palette. She continues by delving into not only the delicate mechanics of the mouth, the troublesome politics of the esophagus and the sturdy duty of the colon but also the often obsessive, strange, troublesome and sometimes sad lives of the people who live, breathe and taste the very sustenance of the human experience.

“Gulp” begins with the question of taste. It is an odd, subjective quality formed by cultural, familial, economic and political experience. It is difficult to parse and even harder to market to the general populace. Taste is not a problem for Roach. With “Gulp,” she goes beyond whetting the public’s appetite for curious info on the human body. Simply put, “Gulp” is addictive.

Contact Jessica Pena at [email protected].