Friday, September 19, 2008

The Cuttlefish by Maryline Desbiolles

When is a novella a novella? Arguments shuffle around definitions based on word count, page length, narrative content, time elapsed within the story. What appears to be a novella could be something else. Glancing at its spine, Maryline Desbiolle's The Cuttlefish appears to be a novella, but the book cover clearly states that it is "A Novel."

Although the book's title indicates that it may be about cuttlefish, it is actually about a recipe for cuttlefish, but cuttlefish only in name for the opening sentence declares, "The recipe began with a mistake." The mistake? The original recipe for stuffed cuttlefish, copied down by the narrator, did not use cuttlefish, but calamari. Even when she goes to the fishmonger to buy cuttlefish, she buys the only thing available, calamari. Yet, mysteriously, the calamari is referred to as cuttlefish throughout the entire book. When you read cuttlefish, read calamari.

So what? Cuttlefish or calamari? One word or the other, they are close enough, right? Most likely they are just a few genes apart. It matters for it lets us know whether or not we can trust the narrator when she later says, "I follow the recipe word for word and don't allow myself the slightest deviation." But she does. She deviates. If a cuttlefish is actually a calamari and a novella is actually a novel, can we be sure of anything when reading this book? If words don't mean something, they can mean anything; and if they can mean anything, they can mean nothing.

Divided into twelve chapters each with each chapter's title being a step in the recipe, The Cuttlefish is an improvisational meditation on food preparation. The dish is being prepared for a dinner party, and the dinner party theme surfaces sporadically throughout the book. The recipe steps described at the beginning of each chapter usually have little to no bearing on the chapter's content. There are riffs on the dinner party, personal life history, aspects of preparing the food. Were this book a work of jazz it would be free jazz, a jumble of sounds loosely related and collected under one title. Moments of disjointed brilliance erupt only to be quickly subsumed by a cacophony of competing ideas. Chapter 7, "In a saucepan, sauté 2 chopped onions in 2 tablespoons of oil," is perhaps the best of the book, but by time the seventh chapter has been reached, who cares? The only reason to read is to indulge the author, an author acting like a spoiled child who cannot be corrected without a resulting tantrum.

Experimentation is an exciting aspect of the novella. New techniques and theories can be tested without testing the reader's patience for too long. But when the reader's patience is tested, the experiment fails.

Desbiolles' Cuttlefish experiment attempts to unlock the world of memories and associations that are inextricably linked with the sense-world of food. In a certain sense, she succeeds in capturing the capricious mind as it discursively meanders while engaged in the mundane aspects of food preparation. Whether or not she succeeds for twelve chapters and 113 pages is a test that the reader must embark upon and decide.

My decision is simple: read the chapters in any order you wish, read the whole thing or just a chapter or just paragraph, read experimentally. If cuttlefish can be calamari, and novellas can be novels, reading can be not reading.


trish said...

Great ending to an excellent review! Have I told you you should keep this up after the challenge is over? ;-)

Chris said...

Thanks, Trish!