Johanna Thomas-Corr

The bread of life

I was captivated by the small dramas of Robin Sloan’s latest novel in spite of myself, admits Johanna Thomas-Corr

The bread of life
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Robin Sloan

Atlantic Books, pp. 259, £

Sourdough has all the ingredients of a truly despicable work of fiction. Novels about food are awful, aren’t they? Especially novels about baking; they’re the absolute worst. Sourdough is not only a kooky satire inspired by that bread they sell for £6.50 down the farmers’ market – it’s set in San Francisco, the smuggest city in the world, with a cast of Tesla-driving techies and Kimchi fetishists and anthropomorphic yeast. Oh, and the book’s author, Robin Sloan, is a former Twitter employee.

But just as it would be churlish to deny that, mmm, £6.50 bread is kind of tasty, so it’s hard to deny that Sloan has an inventive way with a story. Imagine HBO’s Silicon Valley meets Little Shop of Horrors with elements of Greco-Roman hadal mythology and magical realism, all rendered in the easy, chatty tones of chick-lit.

Lois Clary is a software engineer from Michigan who is drawn to the Bay Area to work for General Dexterity, a robotics company with ambitions to change the world (‘We are on a mission to remake the conditions of human labour, so push harder, all of you.’). The money is good but she sleeps on the office sofa, her hair is falling out and her only friends are her listless colleagues who, like her, subsist on ‘fully dystopian’nutritive gel called ‘Slurry’, plus four geriatric women called Lois, wisdom-dispensing members of the local ‘Lois Club’ (possibly a cute touch too far).

Salvation arrives in the form of a takeaway menu from an unlicensed restaurant run by two brothers, Beoreg and Chaiman, who hail from a mysterious European culture known as the Mazg (completely but convincingly made up by Sloan). Their spicy soup comes with a special bread that miraculously heals Lois’s body and soul. When the brothers face deportation, they bestow a crock of the starter dough on their ‘number one eater’, with the instruction that she tend the (as she imagines) sentient microbes every day.

As Lois goes from hapless baker to hipster breadmaker, she not only hears her starter sing but sees faces in the bread’s crusts. Her sourdough eventually secures her an invitation to an elite farmers’ market in Alameda, where her fellow stallholders are fusing food and technology to invent products like Chernobyl honey. Video conferences are overseen by a mystery CEO disguised as a talking fish, who decries both America’s corn-syrup food industrialists and the farm-to-table epicureans.

Sloan, whose debut novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore explored the future of the printed word, clearly believes the traditionalist and the futurist need not be locked in combat. That may seem a little optimistic, and yet there’s something so unjaded about his story, and so plucky about Lois that I found myself captivated by its tiny dramas despite myself. Perhaps it’s that Californian can-do spirit. Or perhaps it’s just a relief to read a novel about breaking bread rather than broken humans.