3D Cardboard: Sweetbitter and Conspicuous Absence in Fiction

I just finished Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, a NYC-transplant bildungsroman that held my attention and felt new and risky—not an easy feat in a crowded subgenre! I’ve been thinking a lot about how Sweetbitter models its form, focus, and release of information on its narrator’s psychology, so that it feels like the book and its readers are in the grip of the same obsessions and fears, going on the same benders and repressing the same unwelcome thoughts. The entire novel circles the conspicuously absent gravitational center of Tess’s past, everything she left to come to New York and why. It should be a load-bearing wall in any story of transformation—what trauma or ambition inspired the character’s need to transition to a new life—and the fact that Sweetbitter skips so lightly over the surface of Tess’s backstory is fascinating. I think it works partly because the novel is dramatizing Tess’s own priorities in its form—she’s confused and intoxicated and trying to start over, and the book is so closely allied with her that it too forgets her past. The few details we do get are surprise-triggered and unpleasantly confusing, for the readers as for her. She’s more interested in—obsessed with—her coworkers’ lives, and the novel focuses our attention there along with hers, scrabbling for crumbs of information not about our narrator but about Simone and Jake. There’s a harmony of form and content that lets something make sense that in another novel would feel like a failing.

Sweetbitter justifies its unusual form and focus partly though character, partly through setting. I know I’ve written plenty here about my fascination with novels of expertise. I love to learn about a subculture or niche field through narrative fiction; I love when dramas of manners and expertise braid together and trade tension. Sweetbitter is a wild intensification, taking as its subject the cultish world of a high-end NYC restaurant. There’s no divide here between life and work; there isn’t room or time for the characters to separate them. In part this means that they live, messily, codependently, at work. It also means that they don’t have time—or at least Tess doesn’t—for real lives. We have sketchy, cardboard versions of most characters, and again the book earns something that should be a failing by creating a world in which it would feel stilted and unnatural to know more—these people see each other at work, where they’re run off their feet, and then during dive-bar benders they fling themselves into to “recover.” Their relationships are absolute professionalism and absolute primal intimacy, nothing in between. We’re so breathlessly allied with Tess’s schedule of working, partying, and heaving herself out of bed hungover and exhausted to begin again, it does feel like a miracle for the reader as well as Tess to realize that Simone has somehow built a home, filled it with books, cultivated a personality that appears at least temporarily to exist independent from the restaurant. Since the novel’s characters only see each other at work, we only see them there as well, until any acknowledgement of their personal lives—even Tess’s—is a gut-punch.

It reminds me of Party Down, which committed to the concept of only showings its characters at work even more whole-heartedly—it might be a better fit for TV, frankly, where interiority is less expected and harder to relate. It’s less strange in a visual medium to have unanswered questions about your protagonists’ pasts and personal lives. But a novel with this unusual focus draws your attention to what is expected and missing, and it’s fascinating. Though it may not be an emotioanl success for every reader, I think it’s at least justified and purposeful here because Tess is so spottily observant, willfully ignoring the parts of herself, her coworkers, and her city that the book turns away from. It’s certainly a memorable book, memorably constructed, and it’s given me a new level of curiosity about novels of expertise—I’m on the lookout now for more books that mimic their subculture-subject in form and focus.