Sourdough: A Novel by Robin Sloan

Sourdough: A Novel by Robin Sloan is a deeply entertaining story of hope, curiosity, food, and community. Set in San Francisco, Sourdough is reminiscent of Sloan’s first novel, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore”, and tells the tale of Lois Clary, a mid-western transplant to the Bay Area working as a programmer for General Dexterity, a cutting-edge robotics company.

Lois, a 20-something single woman with a seemingly enviable career ahead of her, soon finds the daily grind of work at General Dexterity and the resulting lack of human connection to be far less satisfying than she imagined. She lives alone in a small apartment, nearly devoid of character, with no real friends outside of a group of lunchtime work companions who all consume Slurry, a nutritionally complete food replacement product. The constant routine and lack of human connection causes her to begin experiencing the loneliness and isolation that is becoming so common today. However, she stumbles upon a glimmer of hope in an outlaw food delivery service run by two brothers from their apartment, ordering their spicy soup and sourdough almost daily. When the brothers are compelled to leave San Francisco and return to their family in Europe, their gift to Lois of a very special sourdough starter sets her life careening in a new direction, into the world of baking, farmer’s markets, and creative people on the cusp of something new and possibly great.

Sourdough is a fun story and could easily be read in an afternoon or two, while sitting on the beach or an airplane. This story is deceptively simple though and if you’re not careful you can miss what I believe is the real intent and impact of it.

First, Sourdough, perhaps unsurprisingly, is about food. It’s about food and the foodie culture of the Bay Area. It’s also about the culture farmer’s markets and chefs in the area and the cut throat nature that brings some to great success while the rest linger in obscurity or fail altogether. Much of it illustrates Sloan’s understanding and appreciation of those artisans and farmers who are passionately following their crafts despite (or maybe because of) the struggle. There are clear and loving descriptions of learning to correctly crack an egg, of kneading dough and baking bread, of the miracles of cheese and of wine. Some of these descriptions are worthy of “The Supper of the Lamb” and have greater depth and care than the descriptions of some of the book’s characters.

There are also critical views of those who view food, not as something to be enjoyed but as just another scientific problem to solved. It’s clear that this attitude is one Sloan takes personally and must encounter regularly in San Francisco, in many forms beyond food. It’s no accident that the closest character Sourdough has to a villain drives a Tesla or that a certain dominant search company is referred to as “the expedient search engine” rather than by its name. Sourdough contains a critique of the winner take all approach that is increasingly apparent in our society.

There is more love than disdain in these pages though, and food is exalted from nutritional requirement to the foundation and builder of community, as well as the connector of cultures. Horace Portacio, the Marrow Fair’s librarian and one of Sourdough’s characters that easily could appear in Mr. Penumbra’s shop, notes,

“I have come to believe that food is a history of the deepest kind. Everything we eat tells a tale of ingenuity and creation, domination and injustice – and does so more vividly than any other artifact, any other medium.”

Sourdough is written by someone with a deep, personal affection for food and the connections it forges for those who share a similar world view. This leads to what I believe is the real genius of the book. It’s about community. It’s about communities formed among small groups of like-minded people, among families, and across time, space, and ethnicity. It’s about what brings us together and about what separates us. In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore a character states, “You know, I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.” Sourdough embraces that idea and uses it as a mechanism through which to illustrate humans at their best. It illustrates how easy it is to find common ground with another over a slice of warm sourdough or a well made espresso. The things we share are more important than our differences.

From Lois Clary’s struggle to find her sense of purpose, alone in a big unknown city as she begins her adult life, to the historic struggles of the book’s marginalized Mazg people, to many of General Dexterity’s employees, Sourdough illustrates how difficult and painful it is to be, not alone, but lonely. It highlights how people without personal, emotional connections with others can feel unmoored and over time, slip into an unhealthy state, casting about for that which we’ve lost but can no longer seem to recall or name.

Sourdough uses characters like Lois, the Lois Club, Horace, Agrippa, and Beoreg to great effect, illustrating the transforming effects of connection. The intermittent emails between Lois and Beoreg are great examples. Initially they convey a the level of intimacy (or lack thereof) expected between a service provider and customer (Number One Eater!) and only those from Beo included in the book, but evolve into a two-way dialog between friends with all social barriers removed. Ultimately though, the sourdough itself, or more accurately the starter, itself a character in the novel, is revealed as both a literal and figurative illustration of community at both its best and its worst. The book makes a compelling case that without meaningful relationships to ground us we lose sight of the things in life that are truly important and make life worth living. It argues that to be content, to be happy, requires knowing and being known by other people.

Fiction is best when it helps us to learn something about ourselves and about those around us. Sourdough by Robin Sloan emphasizes the importance of our connections with others and the importance of our need to feel useful and contribute to the good of our group. Read it slowly and savor it, enjoying a literary structure as complex as the flavor profile of a warm sourdough loaf, and instead of merely becoming full, be satisfied.

I borrowed this book at the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, TX. Please go use yours. 🙂

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