Taste by Daisy Rockwell
Daisy Rockwell's most recent book, Taste, is a literary journey perfect for those with a discriminating palate. Divided into two sections, "Table" and "Quest," it is the story of a mental and physical expedition that the main character, Daniel, takes to find answers after he makes a startling discovery about his past. Daniel, a somewhat obsessive connoisseur of many things, is a quirky young man who eventually ends up driving himself to the point of madness.
As I read Taste, the word that kept coming into my mind was "specific." Daniel is described on the back of the book as a twenty-first century connoisseur. His tastes in many realms are very thought out and deliberate. The main object of the book, and the object of Daniel's quest, the fruit table, is a very particular furnishing. These peculiarities, and others, add up to make this a unique, imaginative novel. I couldn't help wondering how Rockwell came up with so many of her ideas and was anxious to ask her about it. Over email, she said that after leaving her last academic job, she knew that she wanted to write fiction, but didn't have much experience. She started to write small descriptions of different things, and her description of the table, which surprisingly is the only autobiographical thing in the novel (her step-grandmother also had such a table), blossomed out of that exercise. As for Daniel, he simply sprang into Rockwell's mind, she states that "now that he's broken free of my imagination, I see him in people all around me and even in myself."
Aside from being a writer, Rockwell is a, sometimes controversial, visual artist. I was pleased to see that Rockwell incorporated some of her visual art talent into Taste, along with her writing. Her delightful, whimsical line drawings grace the top of each chapter opener of Taste and the colorful painting on the eye-catching cover is also her work. Rockwell comes from a family of artists, and like Daniel, I learned that she has a definite tendency toward fetishizing objects and works of art. Unlike Daniel, an artistic obsession has never driven her to madness.
As a connoisseur, Daniel possesses an innate need to collect things. When he was younger, he started to collect tastes. The act of eating is both a compulsive and meaningful experience for him, something that he experiences with all of his senses. As he got older, his need to collect grew into other realms outside of food. The act of collecting is really the only way that Daniel can understand anything, it is his way of relating to the world. Therefore, when he discovers and researches the fruit table, it becomes very important that he "collect" that as well.
From a young age, Daniel's parents seemed to understand, or at least tolerate, his need to collect things. There is a chapter in which Rockwell goes into great detail explaining a time Daniel asked his parents to take him to an Ethiopian restaurant. Once there, they patiently sat while Daniel laboriously recorded every encountered taste and experience throughout the meal in a notebook. Once in adulthood, Daniel has difficulties finding, or maybe trusting, people to understand his obsessions. Both his close friend, Roger, and Antoinette, a Philadelphia archivist he becomes somewhat preoccupied with both, at times, disregard his yearnings. Without Roger's understanding, Daniel is pushed to his limits.
The second part of Taste is the story of Daniel's unsuccessful quest to find the fruit table, as well as the search for answers about his past. Daniel's journey takes him by train from Boston to Oxford, Mississippi with rather entertaining layovers in Chicago and Graceland, in between. I enjoyed reading about the investigation that led Daniel to University of Mississippi professor, James De Lourgnier's, house in Oxford, Mississippi. Throughout this trip, Rockwell expertly conveys Daniel's desperation, and manages to do so quite comically. Aside from the "action" of the pursuit, I enjoyed how the quest really brought Daniel's quirks to the forefront. Rockwell writes in such a way that the focus is brought solely on Daniel, allowing the reader to get to know him quite intimately -- for most of the train journey, the reader is alone with him as he travels. After getting to know him so well, I hoped that Daniel would find that table in Mississippi. Of course, if Daniel's quest had ended with a resolution in Oxford, the book would have suffered -- but, his expedition is so laborious, the reader will want to root for him anyhow. Rockwell explained that, as a former academic, she has also taken many such tedious journeys that turned up nothing.
Rockwell writes with a dark humor that is simultaneously entertaining and chilling. Taste's greatest strength is its imagination. Rockwell has a knack for taking a simple plot and skillfully using character development to evoke interest and move the story along. Rockwell's characters are so real in their flaws and characteristics that after reading this, like Rockwell, I also see their traits in people around me, and even in myself.
Taste by Daisy Rockwell