In 2009, Karen Tei Yamashita closed out a class on Asian American Literature by taking a close look at the various ways in which food was used throughout the novels we had read. Her thesis, as I remember it—although provocation might be a more accurate word—was that the unifying thread might be that food was used as a site to work through exotification. The literary body's blankness, formed as it is of words, is still caught up in the hegemony of white supremacy. And Asian American Literature, as a minority literature violently contested in its scope and shape, from both without and within, cannot be treated holistically. But the monkey brains in Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior and the recipes throughout Monique Truong's Book of Salt rang with the tone of transubstantiation. Not, however, of the spirit, but of the body, and its cultural semes.
In 2013, SF Signal hosted a "Mind Meld" on the question of why fantasy seems much better than science fiction at incorporating food into its fiction. Of the many answers given, the one that seemed to recur the most was some variation on: because of the supply chain.
Genevieve Valentine's "A Dweller in Amenty" (Nightmare Magazine, March 2014) is two things: it is food, and it is parentheses.
"Amenty" begins with a pushed-aside piano in a music room, and immediately the reader knows that they are in a place of money. The instrument is set aside to make space for a full casket, a dining table, and the narrator, who is there to eat the sins of the corpse across from her, and who tells us this in clipped, direct paragraphs. Her sentences range from near-fragments to prolix streams of consciousness, but the paragraphs themselves always feel short.
The narrator of "Amenty" remains unnamed throughout, and her address moves between the first person, both singular and plural, and the second. In the parentheticals that litter the story, her voice shifts from advisory confessionalism to an outright warning, as she records for her reader the life she has led, and still leads, as a sin eater. By the end, it is the paragraph, rather than the sentence—though they are often treated as the same thing—which seems the basic building block of the story. Aloud, many of the sentences become tangled up in themselves, strung on slightly too long or with one too many listed items, never quite becoming completely divorced from natural speech but also falling just short of a convincing mimesis. It is the line breaks which achieve that organizational mimesis which the full stop is normally tasked with; not the grouping of ideas, but the motion of the voice.
It isn't until just over halfway through the story that the narrator, in one of those slightly tone-shifted parentheticals, makes clear the stakes of her telling and the desired audience.
(You keep them in the part of you that has no choice, that was born to be forced into, to hold the suffering of others whether you want it or not; the part that waits with parted teeth for anything it can consume, the part you can't touch or reach, that deep open darkness along your spine that you can never, never fill.
For fuck's sake, don't listen, if anyone tells you what you are. Don't listen to the hunger. Run until there's no one left. Starve to death, if you have to, before you do any of this.
If you so much as breathe of Amenty, you're doomed.)
The very "literary" structure of this is as important as the content; although the parenthesis often evokes the voice, forcing it into the equivalence of a whisper or an aside, it also foregrounds the way that text necessarily marks certain things and leaves others unmarked. By graphically differentiating selected segments, the lack of these graphemes elsewhere gets called to attention. It calls to mind the practice of "bracketing" in the philosophical sense, where the things which are to be ignored in the current analysis are explicitly invoked. Which consequently brings to mind the Derridean practice of deconstruction, which could be described at least partially as the process of returning that bracketed content to the table.
The quoted bracket is an imperfect echo of "Amenty" as a whole. Both begin and end with single-sentence paragraphs; in both, the length of the former is greater than that of the latter. Where the imperfection enters is the chiasmatic relationship to complexity between the four. For the bracketed paragraph that tells the tone of the story, it is the lengthy first sentence which displays structural complexity, while the last is direct. In "Amenty" as a whole, it is the lengthier first sentence which lays claim to structural simplicity, while the final's brevity—"[f]ar off, silent, coming closer: wolves"—is a consequence of a structure about as far from SVO as English can intelligibly get.
The first sentence, on the other hand, should be diagrammable by anyone halfway through their first Syntax class: "The Pernille's housekeeper shows me into the music room, where they've shoved the piano to the wall to make room for the coffin and the table and my seat."
As the narrator introduces herself, and her trade, to the reader, she laments that even "people who are paying you the cost of a house for your services will still serve you stale grocery store bread as their final transubstantiation on this earth." As a modern sin eater, she continues the ancient practice of consuming the sins of the newly dead through earthly food touched to the still-warm corpse. This is a story published in a "horror and dark fantasy magazine," so the narrator is presumably telling the truth about her occupation. In another publication, with no alterations whatsoever, her unreliability would be a given; this is both a peculiar strength of the story that plays within implicit structures of power that manifest in the word genre, and a bizarre, confusing mess.
"Amenty" focuses on one particular job, and weaves through it a set of anecdotes and instructions that the narrator records. This job, the eating of the sins of Mr. Pernille Sr., takes place in the music room with the pushed-aside piano. The narrator is (presumably) successful, and tells the reader of various other incidences with sin eating—from the first sins she ever ate (her grandmother's) to the death of another sin eater to the warnings against the profession—throughout. The end of her story is not the successful purging of a rich man's sins, however, but their return, as she goes to his grave—where "[b]odies all liquefy the same"—and how, "vomited back up on the grave, the food [became] whole, exactly as it was when I sat down, unknifed, undisturbed." As the food sinks back into the grave, with sins intact, the narrator takes leave of the graveyard. By way of explanation, she suggests only that "with some people, however light their conscience is, I know what they've really done, and it's a sin even to ask someone else to carry that."
Whether as a sort of thematic labor (as Yamashita suggested) or as shards that bear witness to material conditions (per the Mind Meld)—or both, as most elements of a story could be said to be—literary food is, at bottom, a parenthetical: a marker of that which is bracketed, a way of making visible the unmarked norm. It is, as with all things that might be dubbed realism, categorically inessential. It is this inessentiality which allows it to be said to work through, or bear witness, however, and to sight that which remains normally unseen: not the lack of proper, accurate representations of the body's functions in literature, but the very structures of affect which require the fictional body to persist. Like the parenthesis that gives voice without speaking, that gives tone to the whole by marking out the part, food gives flesh to words by tugging at the reader's gut. That the food in "Amenty" is some combination of unappetizing, grotesque, or flat throughout does not mean the tug is not still happening; only that the normal affective structure has been usurped.
"Amenty" is a fiction against desire. The tugged-at gut can be in hunger, or it can be in revulsion, but here, where sins are food, the idea that "some sins would taste heady, forbidden" is shot down with "[a] love affair is stale breath. A murder is sweat. A lie is a fingernail of dirt." A story's pace is measured by its ability to simulate forward motion, but here it is a tangle of short paragraphs made of long sentences, of section breaks and inverted structures, and a profusion of parentheticals. The narrator herself is never explicitly gendered—though she is racialized—unless one reads the Author Spotlight interview with Valentine published alongside the story. She is a body made only of words, whose hunger is sated on food soaked in concepts. It opens with a signifier of money, that pushed-aside piano, and ends with an almost triumphant refusal of that sign's consequences.
Just after establishing the house of Pernille, the narrator claims that "[m]ost of the people who can [eat sins] just think they've lost their minds, unless someone recognizes them, taps them on the shoulder before the worst happens." This is the dilemma played throughout the story; the worst happening might be suicide or "madness," but it might also be that shoulder tap itself, and the subsequent life of a sin eater.
Without the complex weaving of marked and unmarked aspects, or the tonal complexity, or the strange non-adherence to historical assumptions of tropes, this might be nothing more than a pat moralism: a "what if the monster all along . . . was me" cliché. Which isn't to say that the real moral isn't a cliché of its own; only that, against desire, it synthesizes that pushed-aside piano with the return of the sins; "sin eaters need money like anyone else, and sins are easier to swallow than poverty is."
Ben Gabriel blogs at Uninterpretative.