Candy holidays, Pynchon’s “Marmalade Surprises,” and a writing prompt

Orange grove postcard 19_0503b

Vintage postcard: Tractor at work in an orange grove near Fullerton, California.

The last of the candy holidays is almost here. Each of these holidays comes with bowls and bags and boxes and general excesses of candy:

  • The sugar bender starts with Halloween
  • Skips Thanksgiving for Christmas
  • Continues through Valentine’s Day
  • Peaks again at Easter (No, not Peeps.)
  • And finally slides home at Mother’s (and Father’s) Day

A box of chocolates could be an acceptable gift on any of these holidays, except maybe Halloween. But on All Hallows Eve, the big neighborhood news is often which house is giving out full-size candy bars (not to mention the health-conscious house offering apples and oranges and thus to be avoided).

These holidays each have their confectionary oddities that can linger for months:

  • Halloween—Orange- and black-wrapped peanut butter taffy
  • Christmas—Bitter green-striped candy canes
  • Valentine’s Day—Tie: wax lips and box after mini box of pink and red Nerds
  • Easter—Palm oil “chocolate” bunnies
  • Mother’s Day—Mystery chocolates in a box with no flavor diagram

My apologies if any of these are your favorites, but most of them appear on “worst of” lists.

No matter how cringey these candies may be, they have nothing on the sweets in my favorite scene from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I read the novel during a grad school semester when I was assigned to read a book or more each week, and at 759 pages, Gravity’s Rainbow was a bit of a challenge. I may have been loopy with exhaustion the first time I read the candy scene, but it still makes me laugh today:

…He reaches in the candy bowl, comes up with a black, ribbed licorice drop. It looks safe. But just as he’s biting in, Darlene gives him, and it, a peculiar look, great timing this girl, sez, “Oh, I thought we got rid of all those—” a blithe, Gilbert & Sullivan ingénue’s thewse— “years ago,” at which point Slothrop is encountering this dribbling liquid center, which tastes like mayonnaise and orange peels.

“You’ve taken the last of my Marmalade Surprises!” cries Mrs. Quoad, having now with conjuror’s speed produced an egg-shaped confection of pastel green, studded all over with lavender nonpareils. “Just for that I shan’t let you have any of these marvelous rhubarb creams.” Into her mouth it goes, the whole thing.

“Serves me right,” Slothrop, wondering just what he means by this, sipping herb tea to remove the taste of mayonnaise candy—oops but that’s a mistake, right, here’s his mouth filling once again with horrible alkaloid desolation, all the way back to the soft palate where it digs in. Darlene, pure Nightingale compassion, is handing him a hard red candy, molded like a stylized raspberry … mm, which oddly enough even tastes like a raspberry, though it can’t begin to take away the bitterness. Impatiently, he bites into it, and in the act knows, fucking idiot, he’s been had once more, there comes pouring out onto his tongue the most godawful crystalline concentration of Jeez it might be pure nitric acid, “Oh mercy that’s really sour,” hardly able to get the words out he’s so puckered up, exactly the sort of thing Hop Harrigan used to pull to get Tank Tinker to quit playing his ocarina, a shabby trick then and twice as reprehensible coming from an old lady who’s supposed to be one of our Allies, shit he can’t even see it’s up his nose and whatever it is won’t dissolve, just goes on torturing his shriveling tongue and crunches like ground glass among his molars. Mrs. Quoad is meantime busy savoring, bite by dainty bite, a cherry-quinine petit four. She beams at the young people across the candy bowl. Slothrop, forgetting, reaches again for his tea. There is no graceful way out of this now. Darlene has brought a couple-three more candy jars down off the shelf, and now he goes plunging, like a journey to the center of some small hostile planet, into an enormous bonbon chomp through the mantle of chocolate to a strongly eucalyptus-flavored fondant, finally into a core of some very tough grape gum arabic. He fingernails a piece of this out from between his teeth and stares at it for a while. It is purple in color.

“Now you’re getting the idea!” Mrs. Quoad waving at him a marbled conglomerate of ginger root, butterscotch, and aniseed, “you see, you also have to enjoy the way it looks….” (116-17).

Slothrop encounters many more candy abominations before and after this in the full version of what has been called the “Disgusting English Candy Drill.”

Okay, so let’s see if we can get a writing prompt out of all this:

Intentionally or not, characters may weaponize holiday foods, treats, and other delicacies. In turn, the characters receiving the comestibles may struggle with how to be polite, how to at least try the food, how to escape with or without explaining, how to stay true to their own rules for eating, and so on.

Another potential aspect of this drill is encountering a food so consuming (no pun intended) that paying attention to anything outside of the food becomes difficult. It’s as if the volume is dialed up on the food and down on the world.

Write a scene or memory where struggles with food are at the forefront so that issues among the characters/people can only leak around the edges. Don’t forget to call on sensory details in working with the food. Note the different ways of eating and tasting (Pynchon incorporates the soft palate, nose, tongue, teeth, molars, eyes, and more in just this portion of his scene). Besides spoken words, how do the characters communicate through the handling, offering, and eating of the food (for example, power, rejection, resignation, surprise, etc.)?

I’d be interested to hear whether this prompt yields any useful results. Please post your comments.

Flipping: How to apply analytical techniques to your own writing

Chicago World's Fair Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Chicago World’s Fair: Looking through Morocco with the Belgian village in the background

Problem: You have a longish essay or shortish memoir (say, 13 single-spaced pages) that you want to revise, but you don’t know where to start.

Solution: Try flipping the techniques you probably learned in college English.

Rhetorical analysis is a mouthful and uses criteria that date back to Aristotle. The underlying concepts, however, are familiar and accessible: ethical appeals (ethos), logical appeals (logos), emotional appeals (pathos), and right time/right place (kairos).

For my English 101 and 102 students I compare rhetorical analysis to dissecting a piece of writing. While biology students dissect creatures (worms, frogs, and so on) to find and identify their parts and systems, composition classes do something similar with published texts. They look at the choices an author made and how those choices influence readers. How did or didn’t the author’s writing strategies contribute to his or her purpose?

So, let’s flip the process to figure out what you’re doing (or missing). Instead of assessing someone else’s writing, look at your own nonfiction project. How do you handle the following?

Ethical appeals (ethos)—A writer’s character, knowledge, and authority

  • Do you establish yourself as a trustworthy source? Establish your credibility or authority (such as relevant education, work, or life experience)?
  • Reveal your biases and/or unbiased (journalistic) approach?
  • Cite sources knowledgeably and reasonably? (The sources you cite may contribute to how readers perceive your credibility.)
  • Acknowledge and address opposing viewpoints fairly?

Logical appeals (logos)—A text’s sound reasoning, sense of logic, and evidence

  • Do you use sufficient, representative, and relative evidence to support your writing? (Look at the quality of your source material.)
  • Avoid assumptions and fallacies, such as comparing apples and oranges, using a “straw man” that’s easily refuted, making false analogies, and so on?
  • Employ reasonable arguments?
  • Follow a logical structure?

Emotional appeals (pathos)—A text’s connection to beliefs and values

  • Do you use emotional content legitimately and fairly?
  • Realize the emotions your words might evoke in readers? (This includes how covertly or overtly you communicate your own beliefs.)
  • Avoid oversimplifying or overdramatizing?
  • Include emotional content ethically, instead of as a tactic to shift attention?

Right time/right place (kairos)—A text’s timeliness or opportunity

  • Do you strike the right tone to address your intended audience? (For example, imagine writing to a potential employer versus your best friend.)
  • Use timely and relevant examples?
  • Adjust your text to meet the needs of your audience?
  • Consider: Why this text? Why now?

For my work-in-progress, kairos or right time/right place has been a crucial consideration. I’m writing about events that occurred alongside my first attempts at a reporting and editing career after college. Once I connected the events to my current work teaching students in a similar (if earlier) stage of life, I found what made the text timely. It stopped being simply a Woman vs. Nature story.

This, in turn, led me to consider pathos or the emotional content of the piece. My distance from the events, as well as my proximity to current college students dealing with similar issues, helped me answer what author Ron Carlson used to ask in workshops: What’s swimming under the boat? (I apologize if I’ve misquoted him, but he makes a similar point about things “under the boat” in a Newwest interview. He’s referring to fiction, but I believe his idea works for narrative nonfiction also.)

In considering other rhetorical elements I winnowed unwieldy drafts so that every detail had a purpose. I forecast how my writing choices could influence readers, and I found a conclusion with greater resonance.

This analytical process gave me a sense of intention in my revisions. I hope it does the same for you.

References: The main sources used in compiling this blog were: