Daisy Rockwell’s debut novel is a nuanced and darkly humorous exploration of the role of people’s aesthetic sensibilities in governing their lives, whether as lifestyle determinants or relationship dealbreakers.
Publisher’s Blurb: Daniel is a twenty-first century connoisseur with distinctive and often anachronistic tastes—aesthetic, culinary, and even mind-altering. When Daniel sets out to seek answers about his past in long-sealed documents, he makes a startling discovery that leads him on a cross-country quest. In the course of his travels, he becomes preoccupied with Antoinette, an enigmatic archivist who may hold the key to his search. When he discovers she may be involved with his closest friend, Roger, he comes to distrust them both. His quest becomes a dangerous obsession that drives him to the brink of madness. Rockwell’s prose evokes the dark humor of Edgar Allan Poe and the uneasy aristocrats of Edith Wharton in this new novel of aesthetic obsession.
Paperback, 210 pages
Published April 15th 2014 by Foxhead Books
ISBN: 9940876041 (ISBN13: 9789940876043)
When I started reading Daisy Rockwell’s debut novel Taste, I couldn’t have been more wrong in assuming what kind of book it was going to be. I had thought it would be a high-culture mystery novel about a family heirloom and its place in the secrets of that family’s past. In my mind the plot would go something like this: the “Robert Langdon of antique furniture” would team up with – surprise, surprise – a beautiful-but-mysterious curator on a cross-country chase to solve a historical mystery and most likely also hook up along the way. However, it eventually became apparent that this was not the story Rockwell was telling, not by a mile. In fact, Taste is not even a story per se; it is essentially a character study, and a darkly funny one at that.
Initially, I was not particularly intrigued by the direction the narrative seemed to be taking: Daniel, the protagonist, visits Schiffley House – the stately home of an aristocratic Philadelphia family, now turned into a museum – in order to research the connection between the Schiffleys and his own grandfather. There he is surprised to see a very distinctive table – wooden, with a glass top that encases wax fruit inside – which the docent reveals is one of only two of its kind, the twin of which happened to belong to Daniel’s grandmother and was an object of fascination for Daniel as a child (though it is now long-lost). The presence of this table at Schiffley House opens up new questions in Daniel’s research. He meets with the head curator, a beautiful woman named Antoinette, who is suspiciously suspicious of Daniel’s interest and guards the house’s archives a bit too closely. Interest piqued yet? By chapter four, so was mine. But then suddenly – hold on to your hats – the novel swerves into an unexpected side street and takes us way, way off course from the journey we thought we were on.
This side street appears in chapter five, when Rockwell begins focusing exclusively on the life and habits of her protagonist, who had hitherto seemed rather bland. Suddenly, the reader receives a barrage of dynamic character information and Daniel is endowed with a personality, including some rather remarkable eccentricities. Taste’s most on-the-nose element of “taste” – and its protagonist’s principle defining characteristic – does not make an appearance until we’re almost one-fifth of the way into the novel: Daniel is an avid taste collector, who experiments with and meticulously catalogues his sensory impressions of various foods and ingredients, with the aim of perfecting his knowledge of the tastes of various things the way a botanist memorizes the names and features of plant species. Oh, and he also sometimes snorts cocaine in order to heighten his sensory perceptions when collecting these tastes. Sudden as it is, all of this information is actually very welcome to the reader at this point; within a few richly descriptive paragraphs, the main character of Taste is elevated from Dan Brown drabness to Arthur Conan Doyle complexity. Whatever preconceptions I had going into the novel, I now knew I would have to shed them.
Rockwell’s prose is flavourful in a very neat and clean sort of way – not unlike fruit encased in a glass-top table – and you can tell Taste is written by a painter. The style she uses for Daniel as the narrator of the novel is quaintly old-fashioned, so much so that I was initially very unsure of the temporal setting of the novel. Daniel has a very unusual voice for any young American man of contemporary times. I had a hard time coming up with a voice I could compare him with. A grim version of Niles Crane from Frasier? (More like Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, as it turns out.) I asked Rockwell about this over email. “He’s eccentric, and he’s very much stuck in the past,” she told me. “The style I imagined he would use to narrate his story is very 19th century, and I am a big fan of Dickens.” And that certainly comes through when you read Taste; Daniel as a character, as well as Rockwell’s style of writing, seem to live wholeheartedly in a culture of yore. The entire middle part of the book, for instance, details Daniel’s trip from Boston to Oxford via Chicago and Memphis, a journey taken by train and then taxi (because Daniel is afraid to fly). Rockwell spends a great deal of time and detail on this trip, and despite its meticulously recorded minutiae – what he ate, how he groomed himself and freshened up, what restaurants or museums he stopped by at – the account is never dull, thanks to Rockwell’s crisp writing style, and it is so intimate that you feel as though you are accompanying Daniel hand-in-hand down his slow, spiraling descent into madness.
At the same time, the olden voice of Taste can sometimes come off as jarring in the contemporary setting of the novel – but perhaps that was the idea. One minute, there is talk of friends exchanging letters on fine stationery, records playing on gramophones, and the reader is comfortably thinking along the lines of a certain epoch – when suddenly there is the jolting image of an apartment intercom, or talk of the “electronic mail” that Daniel can’t bring himself to adapt to. He also owns a rarely-used laptop that he keeps stored away in his linen closet. The anachronistic elements throughout the novel are examples of how every aspect of Daniel’s life is imbued with his tastes, his personal culture. He’s the guy who’ll be sitting freshly shaven on a train station bench, thinking deeply about things like elegant wood craftsmanship and paintings of the beheading of St. John the Baptist, making beautifully penned notes in his leather-bound journal – all the while studiously trying to ignore a Hare Krishna type who is dispensing pamphlets of “truth”, as an absurdly violent commercial involving a baby carriage being hurled down a stairway is being filmed around them.
At its finest, Taste is a nuanced exploration of aesthetic sensibility and its role in our lives and relationships. Rockwell offers a humorous take on how people react to perceived affronts to their personal taste, and the extent to which divergence in taste influences our social interactions. This is something we should all be particularly familiar with in the age of our Facebooked badges of identity, waving our Likes around like flags and engaging in heated, polarizing debates of “book-faithfuls versus TV-adaptation-watchers”. The AV Club posted an online discussion recently on cultural dealbreakers – “cultural products that someone can profess to enjoy only while losing all of your respect”. Discussion participants’ dealbreakers ranged from Ayn Rand to Ashlee Simpson concerts, and there were also those who proclaimed they couldn’t get along with anyone who had a cultural dealbreaker at all. Daniel’s dealbreaker, as it so happens, is all things camp, and he notes the ubiquity of the camp aesthetic in modern culture with despair: ten instances of the word “camp” or “campy” in the New Yorker! So vehemently against the camp aesthetic is our hero, that his longtime friendship with Roger Pencil is truly threatened not just when Roger takes up with Antoinette, but when he convinces Daniel to visit Graceland, that holy land of campiness – with its “tawdry furnishings that were meant convey a sense of luxury, but instead provided evidence of a gaping, empty soul.” It is this event, and its fuchsia velvet, animal-print assault on Daniel’s eyeballs and on his refined sensibilities, that really sets in motion the sinister events to come.
Interestingly, the table that becomes Daniel’s obsession is itself so markedly different from his usual taste, though he does not seem to acknowledge this to himself. When an urbane humanities academic with a very stylish home décor calls the table “awful” and then – upon seeing the look of horror on Daniel’s face – adds that it would of course have had “camp value”, Daniel is extremely annoyed and makes an uncharacteristically rude departure. The table, delightfully kitschy as it is with its visual cacophony of waxen fruit, stands out starkly in every “tastefully decorated” setting we find it in over the course of the novel. Daniel’s fascination with it began when he was a child, and so we understand that he loves the table as an artifact from his childhood. And it is in fact based on a real table from Rockwell’s own life. (I suggested to Rockwell that the table might be Daniel’s personal Graceland; she replied in mock-horror, “How dare you!”)
Despite the novel’s merits as a treatise on aesthetic obsession, I could not help feeling that there were certain narrative gaps that kept niggling at my mind as I read. I was confounded by the novel’s complete avoidance of the questions raised by Daniel’s visit to Schiffley House at the beginning, or its amnesia regarding Daniel’s original project: the research into his grandfather’s work. The sudden change in focus that came about in chapter five was hard to come to terms with, because it all but abandoned what I had assumed was the central mystery of the novel. It was not a mere detail or two that Rockwell had used as red herrings; the entire, elaborate expositions of the initial chapters of the book – which set up the mystery of the Schiffley brothers and their physically connected houses, of the connection between Grand Jane and the Schiffleys, of the rift between Daniel’s grandfather and the Schiffleys, of Antoinette’s affinity with Larry Schiffley, of Daniel’s obsession with Minerva Green – all of that was for naught, it seemed. I asked Rockwell if there were symbolic elements in those stories that went over my head, and she explained that Daniel’s obsession with family and past are fundamentally a part of his character profile, as much as his aesthetic preoccupations. “As I was writing from the point of view of Daniel,” she wrote in her email, “I became more interested in his slowly becoming unhinged; the real plot was his mental disintegration. As such, the histories of the families were the kinds of things he thought about when he was doing better, and after a while he simply became fixated on the table and nothing more. In that sense, the novel fails to tie up loose ends because Daniel is simply a mass of loose ends by the end.”
While I do somewhat understand what the author wanted the novel to be about, the truth is that I was quite keen on seeing the stories told in Taste come full circle, and I was disappointed and mystified when they didn’t. Perhaps, akin to Daniel’s observation about the Schiffley House docent’s “words and explanations reducing the mysteries of life to a series of easily perceived tumours or polyps ready to be sliced out”, Rockwell does not believe all of life’s questions need to be answered. And that may be true for real life. Fiction, however – well, closure is one of the things fiction was invented for.
Fatima Shakeel is a regular contributor to DWL and her work has also been featured in Papercuts. You can read more of her writing on her blog.