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Gulp. Adventures on the Alimetary Canal by Mary Roach

Gut with gusto

May 28, 2013  |  3:53pm
<i>Gulp. Adventures on the Alimetary Canal</i> by Mary Roach

For many of us, culture offers escape from the kind of bureaucratic drudgery so sharply lampooned by the likes of The Office, Dilbert and Office Space.

Holed up in cubes, we spend our days battling arcane procedures. We stare for hours at unblinking, backlit screens and stop only for bathroom breaks. We miss lunch. We bandy passive-aggressive emails thick with the latest hip euphemisms. By day’s end, the strain of hours spent slinging words the way assembly-line workers toss parcels brings temporary scoliosis. Not even the most expensive ergo chair can prevent it.

Perhaps in that brief pause between the job’s end and the instant we slip on ear buds for the commute home, we briefly yearn for the work we once imagined we’d grow up to claim. You know—jobs characterized by wonder, joy and movement.

Then the moment passes.

Mary Roach gives us all hope. In her latest book, Gulp, she leads the reader on a fast-paced tour of a most mundane workplace—the human gut. Nasal cavity to anus.

By turns, it fascinates, grosses out … and thoroughly entertains. I’m not sure whether I grimaced or guffawed more, but I’m still surprised no fellow BART passengers who shared my train as I read Gulp asked what on earth provoked such reactions from me.

Beginning with the nose and its pivotal role in taste, Roach makes her way from an olive oil taste-panel tryout (which she fails) to a Davis, Calif., research facility where she sticks her arm inside a fistulated cow. (A fistulated cow, Paste reader, is a cow with a permanent, surgically created hole in its side — generally done for scientific purposes, such as observation of the cow’s digestion.) Roach wishes to test the creature’s stomach capacity. Lest you think her a tomboy, she reports that her kitten heels and skirt gave the scientist accompanying her no end of amusement.

Moving further down the Golden State—and the digestive track—Roach interviews a central-California prisoner experienced in “hooping”—the practice of smuggling by rectum. She then concludes this … ah … course of research by observing a more beneficial anal additive: the fecal transplant.

Roach does not confine her tale to the present. We meet patriotic chewer, Horace Fletcher, who sought to improve WWI-era vitamin absorption by drastically increasing chew-per-bite rates. We huddle in the oversized home of the doctor who helped Elvis Presley cope with a constipation problem that probably killed him. (Yes, really.) Roach also reports on an ill-fated WWII attempt to increase civilian consumption of animal organs (feeding armies caused a meat shortage), and the dubious medical treatment that probably hastened President Garfield’s death.

Despite her stories’ sometimes lurid qualities—Roach seems to relish these—we always find a keen appreciation for a subject’s humanity. From a murderer who answers her most probing questions about the “prison wallet,” to the French Canadian trapper whose unsealed stomach wound linked him in a strange relationship with ethically challenged surgeon-cum-scientist William Beaumont, Roach never lets foibles overshadow dignity. Her trademark droll humor never lurks far below the surface, but the writer rarely introduces a source without providing some sense of personality. No matter how overlooked by most of the world or how misunderstood even by friends and loved ones, Roach’s sources never come off as boring.

She weaves this tale in such entertaining fashion that we forget Roach often tackles deeply obscure material. (One Dutch scientist she interviewed reported his unit will be closed after he retires.) More than once she references a medical article tracked down in a foreign language journal somewhere, requiring a translator. Intriguingly, Roach seems to prefer that her translators read documents aloud to her. Describing one account, from an Italian journal, of a 17th-century exorcism involving a holy-water enema, Roach reports that the story surprised even the translator.

“‘[The priest] learned from the possessed mother superior that the devil had barricaded himself inside…’ Here my translator stopped. She leaned closer to the photocopied pages and traced the words with her finger. ‘… il posteriore della superioria. Inside her butt!’”

Like the Olympic gymnast whose incredible control makes a complex maneuver seem effortless, Roach conceals such painstaking research and paraphrase with her witty style and often-irreverent footnotes. A reader begins to think, Wow, I should read scientific journals! Who knew they were so interesting?

If only more scientists shared Roach’s patient commitment to reader enjoyment. As Blaise Pascal once remarked, “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.”

As many of us know from the acronym-laden missives of our own offices, any given specialty involves an equally specialized vocabulary. Whether it’s music, or knitting, or one of the various sciences Roach explores (previous separate books examined cadavers, sex, life in space, and possibilities of afterlife), each field develops a vernacular attuned to its particular tools and problems. By their very precision, these hyperlocal languages can prevent outsiders—and sometimes even insiders—from appreciating the wondrous thing under inspection.

Many of us scoff to think our day-to-day work involves something wonderful. But then you have to ask, would our jobs … our selves … sound boring if Mary Roach wrote about them in her next book?

Probably not.

After the recent death of noted New York Times reporter John McCandlish Phillips, tributes to his writing noted a 1961 parade story he wrote, a task the Times called “an annual millstone for the city’s general-assignment reporters.”

Phillips rendered the millstone event this way:

“The sun was high to their backs and the wind was fast in their faces and 100,000 sons and daughters of Ireland, and those who would hold with them, matched strides with their shadows for 52 blocks. It seemed they marched from Midtown to exhaustion.”

I could see Dwight Schrute leap atop a desktop to recite that paragraph—perhaps along with some choice Mary Roach excerpts—before launching into a mini manifesto.

We don’t all have our dream jobs. But would we like them better if we approached them like Roach or Phillips?

I like to think so.

Anna Broadway is a writer and Web editor living near San Francisco, and author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity. Rolling Stone once described her as “fire, brimstone and brains.” She has written for The Atlantic, Her.meneutics, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @annabroadway.

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