Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach is probably the funniest and most entertaining book I’ve encountered in a very long time – I found myself giggling madly even as I read. The entire text is a crazy conglomeration of fun (and disgusting) facts about our digestive system, strung together in a remarkably coherent narrative. There is so much snark and so much absurdity, all presented in a completely deadpan fashion. The book’s real value, however, isn’t in the humor alone, but in the incredible richness of detail, the truly fascinating history and science that Roach uncovers and presents to the reader. The title is particularly apt – reading it is very much an adventure.
Roach takes us from one end the digestive tract to the other, following a logical narrative progression: she begins with the senses of smell and taste, and then follows the path of food through the body to its final destination. She also delves into the psychological aspects of her subject, from our food taboos to the necessity of taste to the disgust we feel while contemplating our inner workings. On this blog, I’ve previously mentioned my love of the Horrible Histories series by Terry Deary, which hooks kids on history by leaving all the nasty bits in, appealing to their fascination with yuck. Obviously, I never grew out of this phase, and neither did Roach.
I love this book in the same way I enjoy watching Mythbusters – everyone involved takes such unmitigated joy and delight in science, displaying profound exhilaration in the thrill of discovery. Sedate and endoscope a frog to see if a mealworm can survive and/or chew its way out of the amphibian’s stomach, with no funding and donated/borrowed equipment, just to see if it’s possible? Yep, there are those who will do so gleefully, in their free time, FOR SCIENCE. Others will inflate a dead python, just to see the bursting point of the snake’s stomach. For all Bama fans out there, a researcher at the University of Alabama makes several appearances throughout the narrative: Stephen Secor, snake digestion expert, from whom we learn (among other things) that a snake will in fact swallow a beer bottle if a rat head is placed over it.
Roach is a very snarky and lemony narrator, cracking jokes at every possible opportunity, and never shying away from the juvenile and the scatological. There is no aspect of our inner workings too distasteful or too blasphemous for her to comment on. It’s as if she simply can’t help herself, which is all to the good. Besides being a sheer joy to read, the humor helps distract from the “ick” factor, bringing the “neat” factor to the front. It also helps that the book is almost entirely verbal (with the occasional photograph chosen for humor and not at all graphic), allowing the squeamish reader to suppress the occasional gag reflex and focus solely on the content. The science she describes is fascinating in its own right, but it becomes even more so in the hands of this master storyteller. From a possible origin to legends of fire-breathing dragons to why someone would reverse-engineer a fart to the death of Elvis, nothing is off-limits.
Her phrasing may be irreverent, yet Roach treats the science involved with utter seriousness and respect. As ludicrous and unpalatable as many of the experiments she describes are, most of them do have a legitimate scientific purpose. In one place, Roach detects a hint of “poorly suppressed schoolboy glee” behind an otherwise dry account of a rather dubious experiment in the British Medical Journal, and fears that if she had a medical degree, she would have the exact same response in a similar situation. I can sympathize. But in this way, she pays tribute to those who do make these topics their life’s work.
The footnotes are quite possibly my favorite part – no doubt my love of Terry Pratchett is showing. They are not citations, but fun additions to the text, so full of neat little tidbits of information or commentary, such as why you should rightly fear the “fight bite” or challenging the reader to “find a more innocuous sentence containing the words sperm, suction, swallow, and any homophone of seaman” and share it with her (151). If a (semi) pertinent factoid would derail the narrative too much, it’s a footnote; otherwise, it is skillfully woven into the text.
At the end of her introduction, Roach makes it very clear that her goal is not to gross the reader out. Instead, her aim is to make the reader think “COOL!” – and maybe a little gross.
Mission absolutely accomplished.