Matt Stewart's 'The French Revolution,' a novel first released on Twitter
By Matt Stewart
Soft Skull. 306 pp. Paperback, $15.95
You've got to admire a guy who, unable to sell his book, breaks it down into 140-character bits, releases them one by one on Twitter, garners publicity, turns the tweets back into novelese and then -- voila! -- gets a publisher. It's harder, though, to admire the novel itself, which arrives just in time for Bastille Day.
While this story of a family in contemporary San Francisco mirrors the French Revolution, you don't have to be a student of guillotines, peasants and aristocrats to follow its broad references. No subtlety here challenges the reader. Esmerelda Van Twinkle, once a pastry chef awarded a planetarium's worth of culinary stars, is now so obese that she needs hydraulic lifts to get to her job as the cashier at a copy store. She also requires an extra wide and triply reinforced chair, the Gargantuan. "The attachment of a bedpan to the Gargantuan's seat had been nixed after a day of use; not only was the smell rancid and inescapable, the sound of Esmerelda's urine dribbling against the tin bedpan, followed by a string of stomach gurgles and a pronounced flushing of the face never failed to bring commerce to a halt," reports the author in a typically sophomoric passage. Soon enough, Jasper, a coupon salesman, seduces her with cake (take that, Marie Antoinette!) in a repulsive sex scene involving a swimming pool and a winch. Nine months later, on Bastille Day, the twins Marat and Robespierre are born, joining a family dysfunctional in a multitude of ways: alcoholism, abandonment, drugs, handicaps, orgies, scandal and incest, for starters.
Blame the cake: It's responsible not only for the twins' birth but also for Esmerelda's girth. She regards the recipe as "the culinary equivalent of finding Christ under her pillow." Food, in fact, is the best part of this novel. "The cakes dwarfed everything else, towering leviathans, slice after slice liquefying in Esmerelda's mouth, alighting the dim portions of her brain and helping her see across continents, into the future, through the webbing of souls."
In due course, Robespierre heads for Stanford, Marat for the army instead of jail. And Esmerelda, "a cigarette of beef jerky hanging from [her] cud," decides "this eating's got to stop," exchanging the Gargantuan for an apron she can tie around her waist. Jasper reappears. Robespierre runs for office. Marat makes a pot of money not just from pot. Has the old regime collapsed? All revolutions and revelations lead to Waterloo -- a mayoral race cast as a Keystone Kops farce. Perhaps only a hipster can appreciate the slapstick and the excess. But to this reviewer, it's liberté, égalité, gimmickry.
Medwed is the author of five novels.