Dancing with Zorba
by Richard Adams Carey
So there I was in deep Google mode. I’m helping a good designer—Steve Pelizza, Optimize Web Design, check him out—build my first golly-gosh website (yes, very belatedly), and Steve wants links: to book reviews, interviews, magazine articles, short stories, chapter excerpts, whatever-the-hell-have-you, so he can spangle these like beckoning wormholes across the pages of this website.
I was twenty Google pages in and still hadn’t exhausted the drumroll of my name in cyberspace. This isn’t to be confused with fame. Rather it’s the routine detritus of anybody who writes books and makes appearances: used copies available for embarrassingly deep discounts; notices of appearances long cloaked in the mists of time; arcane references to you or your work here and there. There’s also stuff you never knew about among all that whatever-the-hell-have-you.
So there’s a Google Books edition of “Raven’s Children?” Far out. It’s not really out of print, then, though such downloads don’t help pay the mortgage. So the Library of Congress hired one Michael Scherer to intone the text of “Against the Tide” into a microphone? That’s news, but thank you. So you can go to a website called DailyBooth, a kind of photo-based version of Facebook, and download every page of “The Philosopher Fish?” Can’t figure that one out. Also, if you Google my name, there are the flags that pop up for every liaison in cyberspace between “Watership Down” author Richard Adams and singer Mariah Carey. Those two can’t get away with anything.
But even twenty pages in, things of personal website wormhole value were turning up, at least occasionally—well, very occasionally. This is one sort of proof, I guess, that you ever drew a breath, even as you feel your breath getting fainter and fainter the more pages you go back. Extinction stalks us all. But it was somewhere in those back pages that I stumbled across a review of “The Philosopher Fish” that I’d never seen before, one that had appeared in the Los Angeles Times
in 2005, soon after publication, right around when the rest of them were coming out.
Some of us make a point of ignoring our reviews, but I’ll wager most of us, with search engines at our fingertips, point instead to tracking down each opinionated snippet in every obscure blog as if they were lost Gospel texts: to find out what other people think; to see if we can learn anything to make us better writers; to gauge whether we’ve done anything that anybody else has noticed; to decide whether we’ve been understood. I was working the search engines pretty hard when that book was published—deep Googling and beyond. Somehow this one got past me, and I guess it also got past my publicist at the Counterpoint Press. Or maybe not—he was mad at me. That’s another story. Later.
Anyway, this was the sort of lengthy review, written by novelist Kai Maristed, that you can still find in The New York Times, and occasionally even yet in the L.A. Times, but that other newspapers have abandoned. Most, in fact, have abandoned book reviews entirely. In several different ways, this was like opening a time capsule. Or dropping into a wormhole.
The subtitle to “The Philosopher Fish” is “Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography of Desire.” Maristed mostly regurgitates the content of the book, including its prologue, where I describe my first exposure to caviar, offered to me in 1969 on the finger of a stunningly beautiful girl outside a shop in Harvard Square. I declined. The situation was a little complicated, but chiefly I didn’t see the point of wasting even a fingerful of something so out of my league (in terms of cost) on someone like me, who probably wouldn’t like it. I expected Heather and I would find other things to enjoy in common. Okay, she was out of my league in other terms as well.
Maristed makes much of that moment, though. “Is ‘The Philosopher Fish,’ then,” she wrote, “an act of atonement for the sin excoriated by Zorba the Greek—the sin of holding back, refusing a beckoning to pleasure, to passion, to the dance of life? The theme runs like an undercurrent throughout the book, in frequent references to ‘The Great Gatsby,’ that paean to luxe and excess, and in such quotes as Simone de Beauvoir’s that desire ‘creates the desirable’ or the environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s ‘And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook.’”
I’m not sure that the book is an act of atonement, really, but Maristed is spot on about that undercurrent. Once I did get around to tasting caviar—not until I began researching that book in 2002—I found that caviar really is pretty good, even if I do like peanut butter better. It’s a food that doesn’t taste anything like chicken, or peanut butter, or anything else in the world, really. And like no other food in the world, it’s costly to procure and breathtakingly expensive to consume. So there you have de Beauvoir’s heirloom recipe for desire, and the snack of choice for every epicurean’s orgiastic dance of life.
Ah, but there is the dance of death as well, this inflicted on the tragic and mysterious fish that yields this golden egg. The music of that dance has been played on the gaffs and winches of a century and a half of industrial fishing and wholesale poaching. The celebrated beluga sturgeon of the Caspian Sea, a fish that grew as big as a school bus, was vanishingly rare when I visited Central Asia in 2003. Now the fish has quietly vanished, gone with hardly a murmur, the way most species disappear. “The Philosopher Fish,” like Maristed says, is indeed about the sin of holding back, of hesitating on the threshold of paradise, or at least of that graceful, gilded version of it that Jay Gatsby broached. But it’s also about the sin of not holding back.
Caviar from wild sturgeons is now about as rare as beef from wild cattle. And it’s infuriating, as I consider this dispatch from the world of just eight years ago, how avoidable it might have been. But we couldn’t hold back.
We still have plenty of beef, of course, and we still have plenty of caviar—not enough to make it cheap, but enough so you can get it if you want to spend the money. This is farmed caviar, from sturgeons grown on fish farms. Aquaculture has not proven a very good solution to the problems of not enough cod or salmon or shrimp, but because you only need a little bit of caviar to turn a big profit—and therefore not that many sturgeons, and not that much room—aquaculture has been entirely a boon to the caviar industry. At the same time, it’s allowed us to forget about wild sturgeons. Which is easy to do. Who among us recalls that the Hudson River, Delaware Bay, the Chesapeake once boiled with sturgeon, that the United States was at one time the world’s leading exporter of caviar?
Some purists object to the taste of farmed caviar. While not quite, to my mind, surpassing peanut butter in its exquisite titillation of the gustatory array, farmed caviar is pretty damned good. And I guess getting used to the taste of that proved a lot easier than saving the
So it goes. Steve’s doing good work on that website. It still needs some tweaks, and I still have more stuff to send him, but the Shameless Commerce division of Book Talk has asked me to urge you all to hurry (you will not rue your haste) to http://www.richardadamscarey.com.
There, through the miracle of the internet, you will find wormholes that will take you back to strange and wondrous times—when nearly all major newspapers ran thoughtful, detailed reviews of new books; when authors could expect at least a few pennies in return for each sale; and when legendary giants swam in the Caspian Sea. I beckon you to pleasure.