Issue Date: August 19, 2013
Science As Fiction
It is great fortune to be served a delectable meal, where each of the many courses seems more delectable than the previous. Such manna can only be bestowed by one who has experienced the world’s culinary delights and has mastered the art of preparation and delivery.
Carl Djerassi is such a chef, and his book of short stories, “How I Beat Coca-Cola and Other Tales of One-Upmanship,” is his multicourse, savory meal for us. When I had finished reading the fifth of the 12 short stories, I lusted for more but was somewhat reassured: Seven more remained, including the story that I had been informed was his favorite (“The Toyota Cantos”). Too soon I realized that I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too. As I read more, fewer remained! This was a meal which, the more I ate, the hungrier I became.
The reasons to read these short stories are varied.
First, they are simply fun and a fast read. Each story ends with a twist; even the most experienced sleuth won’t anticipate Djerassi’s denouements.
Second, the stories are attitudinal and intellectual, even instructive. They bring the reader into the culture and “cultivated taste” of the sophisticated, worldly, even jaunty Djerassi: upper-crust Brits, opera, food, art, money, and sex (and sex and sex).
Third, the stories either contain moral lessons or are conversational embarkation points. Djerassi brings into sharp focus human—and often, relationship—issues, such as friendship, lack of fundamental understanding between spouses, and persona (“Maskenfreiheit”); snobbery and idiosyncratic human behavior (“The Glyndebourne Heist”); attitudes toward therapy (“First Class Nun”); and the relationship between fantasy and reality (“What’s Tatiana Troyanos Doing in Spartacus’s Tent?”).
Fourth, you might want to learn about Djerassi the man. Why? He was one of the preeminent chemists of the 20th century: Priestley medalist, awardee of both the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology, coinventor of the first birth control pill, author of over 1,200 scientific publications and more than 20 books and plays. Three wives. Four homes (San Francisco, Vienna, London, and his San Francisco Bay Area ranch). Fused knee. Sleek attire. The Djerassi Glacier in Antarctica is named after him. Of course, you could go to one of his three autobiographies, but these short stories are far more insightful. According to Djerassi’s preface, “Much of what I tell is autobiographical, though very little of it is biographical: it didn’t happen to me as told, but it could have.”
It is also amusing to see, story by story, how these tales—and Djerassi—share an underlying theme of one-upmanship, according to him typical of scientists. “And since I have practiced one-upmanship for most of my adult life—often to my detriment—I thought that the most painless way of confessing that character fault of mine—still in full bloom on my ninetieth birthday—is in the guise of fiction.”
Fifth, Djerassi is the consummate marketer. Sometimes it seems that he’s always selling: his books, his plays, his socioeconomic advocacy issues such as human population control (in favor) and psychotherapy (also in favor, but not for himself). Djerassi is invariably entertaining, sometimes annoying, and always memorable.
Sixth, several of the stories have scientific themes, which give them a special attraction for ACS members. Indeed, all the stories are intellectually challenging. Two involve analytical organic chemistry: one with flavor science (“How I Beat Coca-Cola”), another with biological fluids (“The Dacriologist”). Djerassi exhibits his playfulness in several ways. For example, admirers of Koji Nakanishi will find him as the protagonist Koji Nishinaka in “Slight-of-Mind.” Gilbert Stork appears, although less transparently, in the guise of a professor of Italian literature in “The Toyota Cantos.”
Seventh, there is the opportunity to read these stories alongside Wikipedia and one’s favorite online dictionary. At one level of interaction, one cannot relax around Djerassi. He sprinkles many bits of both random and well-placed information throughout these stories, such as Veronica Thwale (the married mistress of one of Aldous Huxley’s protagonists), Glyndebourne (an English country house and opera theatre), and many, many quotes from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Some of this knowledge comes easily for Djerassi as part of his life experiences. He has been to the opera many times at the Glyndebourne Theatre. For other knowledge, he has had to work hard. “I wrote a good part of [‘The Toyota Cantos’] during a lecture trip to Italy by taking a break for inspiration in Lerici … I spent two days searching the entire ‘Divina Commedia’ for bumperstickerish messages. I needed them not only for the above bumper cantos, but also to compose Lionel’s Dantean response.” In the story, most of the dialogue between the protagonist and his wife are in the words of Dante’s cantos.
Sometimes, the intellectual challenge is Djerassi’s superabundant vocabulary. The protagonist in “Coca-Cola,” upon using the word “bagatelle,” states, “[I]t suddenly dawn[ed] on me that a new word had entered my regular vocabulary.” Throughout Djerassi’s stories are words such as “tumescently,” “badinage,” “vernissage,” and a favorite word of R. B. Woodward’s, “apposite.” The protagonist in “The Toyota Cantos” speaks for Djerassi, “I’m not using up my available synapses for bureaucratic detritus that I can look up. I told him this in simple language—I figured ‘detritus’ was not part of his vocabulary.” Djerassi even makes up words, such as “psomophile” in the story “The Psomophile.”
Eighth, it is amusing to search for flaws. “Maskenfreiheit” has so much going on, it’s easy to get lost and miss the subtleties. There are cracks in several plots: In “Psomophile,” a portable generator would have easily and inexpensively saved all the precious frozen bread from spoiling and is something the extraordinarily wealthy protagonist could have secured in such an emergency. In the short story “Castor’s Dilemma” (a preview of his first novel, “Cantor’s Dilemma”), Castor did not withdraw his jointly authored publication after concluding that it was based on his student’s fabricated data; nor did his colleague, who discovered the unrepeatable experiments, report his findings to the journal. Either action would have rendered the denouement implausible.
In “Coca-Cola,” the protagonist coerces the soft drink corporation’s CEO to pay $25 million yearly to keep secret the soda’s flavor formulation. The protagonist had determined a formulation in his backyard laboratory that was indistinguishable from the commercial product. However, the sensory evaluations demonstrating that the test soda and the commercial soda were indistinguishable would never have been used by a Fortune 100 corporation. Perhaps I hold too high a standard for the technical aspects of Djerassi’s short stories. But then, this is Carl Djerassi, not some imitation of the classic.
Lastly, at least for this reviewer, these stories are sophisticated fun. Yes, I said that before, but if items two through eight haven’t convinced you to read these short stories, let me emphasize the best reasons: Fun, fun, and more delectable fun.
Jeffrey I. Seeman is a Ph.D. chemist who is a visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond and an avid student of the history of chemistry.
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