In this day and age, under our current political conditions, you'd be forgiven for mistaking lightness for triteness, escape for escapism. There's a sense that our fictions should be of Earth-shattering import in the obvious ways, and this perhaps desensitizes us to other examples of subversion and narrative. It may also make us miss out on some great fiction about odd bread, an imaginary country and the processes behind making robot arms.
All of which is to say that Robin Sloan's delightful new novel, "Sourdough," the follow-up to his runaway success "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore," displays both lightness and a yearning for escape, but only in the best sense. It is that rare thing: a satire that has a love of what it satirizes while also functioning as a modern fairy tale about, of all things, the magic of certain carbohydrates.
For this to be a chemical rather than physical reaction, Sloan must display a sure and natural knowledge of high-tech culture and of bread culture (in both senses). His keen insight into both automatons and organic foods stems from his immersion in the San Francisco tech culture and collaboration with his partner Kathryn Tomajan on products like Fat Gold olive oil.
Did I say the novel also includes a Lois Club for women named Clara? That's a joke — a much worse joke than any of the many fine jokes you'll find in "Sourdough." Of course, the Lois Club is a club for women named Lois, including the narrator, who works for General Dexterity, a tech company that develops robotic arms. There are a profusion of Loises in "Sourdough" because of the club — including Boring Lois, Lois Whose Stomach Hurt, Professor Lois and Woodland Court Lois. Just as there are a profusion of robotic arms at Real Lois' day job at a start-up, and just as there are countless moments during which Sloan, not only with sympathy but also with sharpness, sends up the rituals of modern work-life. At times, the send-up is stripped down to avoid making the novel too capitalism-friendly, as when Lois receives the nonironic message from management that "We are on a mission to remake the conditions of human labor, so push harder, all of you."
Despite the proliferation of many interesting Loises in Sloan's story, though, there is really only one Lois for me: the narrator, Computer Lois, who tells a sure-footed and lovely tale of being gifted with a strange sourdough starter after becoming addicted to the delivery service of a couple of brothers, Beoreg and Chaiman, who turn out to be operating an illicit restaurant out of their apartment.
Why is Lois ordering so much delivery? She's become sick of the "nutritive gel" called Slurry favored by her start-up — a gel, I might add, that is satire in three dimensions. Its presence in the story pokes fun at not only team-building exercises among the Silicon Valley set but also group-think and current fad diets. Slurry isn't delicious, but it creates several hilariously delicious moments in the story.
Similarly, you could say that Lois, although surrounded by (at least some) talented, driven people, has gotten a little tired of robot arms, even a little tired of the idea of automation and automatons itself. Getting to know the affable brothers responsible for the menu at the Clement Street Soup and Sourdough "restaurant" helps, along with the Lois Club, to airlift her out of the hermetically sealed world created by General Dexterity. Or, perhaps the one she's created for herself: "Here's a thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted."
Sorting is one thing — staying in your lane is another, and Lois soon enters the world of bread-making when the brothers leave town and hand her the strange sourdough starter, along with explicit instructions that say that not following the instructions will lead to the death of the starter in a couple of days. When Lois really gets going on the bread-making, and people begin to love it, the starter becomes almost like her child; there is the same sense of responsibility to feed it and take care of it. This attachment is more real than anything General Dexterity has to offer.
Lois also develops a bond with Beoreg and Chaiman, who proclaim her their "number one customer." Or perhaps number one addict. Beoreg and Chaiman claim to be hawking "the food of the Mazg," a perhaps imaginary European lineage. Even after they skip town, leaving Lois with the responsibility of the starter, they send her emails and letters from their journeys, and these brief but chatty missives form lovely micro-chapters between those describing Lois' adventures. In one of the wittier emails, Beoreg confesses that he has sometimes had the thought that "the two of us were like the bacteria and the fungus in the starter….(In that analogy I am the bacteria and Chaiman is the fungus. Never tell him I said that.)" This observation leads to a comedic pay-off I will not spoil, except to say that it involves the bacteria, not the fungus.
As for the rest of "Sourdough," once we're past the setup, Sloan continues the high-wire balancing act of including satire with his fairy tale, all with an astounding conciseness and sure-footedness. We breeze through, in the best way, Lois impressing her fellow employees with her bread and then, after a hilarious encounter with the judges who accept or deny vendors to the fabled Ferry Market, becoming embroiled with the down-market, not nearly as prestigious Marrow Fair, which no one has ever heard of. The market wants not just her bread but also her ties to General Dexterity. In becoming embroiled with the Marrow Fair, Lois trades one weird culture for another, with its own set of issues.
But wait: I haven't even dwelt much on the star of the show: the sourdough starter. Because Beoreg and Chaiman may not have been entirely honest with Lois about its true nature. Because Lois does wonder why her bread comes out of the oven with what seem like human faces displayed across the crust. Because she is perhaps tempted during sessions of the Lois Club to confess to uncanny occurrences during the night that involve unusual behavior by the starter.
That Sloan rises to the occasions (bread pun intended) in making all of this work so well is perhaps the real miracle, though. The irony of "Sourdough" is that there really are no bad carbs here — just a full, satisfying meal.
VanderMeer is the author, most recently, of the novel "Borne." The film "Annihilation" starring Natalie Portman, based on his book, debuts in February.