Why We Never Talk About Sugar

By Aubrey Hirsch


Braddock Avenue Books
March 2013

Reviewed by Lori Wald Compton


If you're reading this review, there's a good chance that you, like me, have never considered the difference between particle physics and quantum physics. Not so for Aubrey Hirsch. Throughout her collection, Why We Never Talk About Sugar, she demonstrates her understanding of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, as well as how that theory functions within the universe of story. A literary Theory of Relativity operates in the space-time continuum of Hirsch's fiction: she places one storyline next to another so as to shed new insight on the relativity between them.

Take, for example, the story "Advice for Dealing with the Loss of a Beloved Pet," wherein both Ethan and Ethan's dog, Millie, are simultaneously diagnosed with cancer. The storylines intersect when Millie's vet spots a nodule on Ethan's thyroid gland. From there, the two storylines play off each other: "Ethan wears a foam neck brace to keep his neck immobilized while his stitches heal. Millie wears a plastic cone around her neck to keep her from chewing on her bandage." Both Ethan and Millie undergo brutal courses of treatment, but in the end, the dog is not required to suffer the inhumanities of cancer treatment that his human master has to.

In "The News and What It Means to Noah," various physics equations run parallel to equations about love and relationships. The narrator considers the perilous probabilities of a home pregnancy test by comparing it to the work of three Nobel Prize winning Japanese scientists in "spontaneous symmetry breaking. The system requires outcomes of relatively equal probability, like the two possible outcomes of an early-indicator, easy-to-read, digital home pregnancy test."

Beyond Hirsch's literary Theory of Relativity is her even more potent Black Hole Theory of Literature. A black hole absorbs all light and reflects nothing, yet has an incredibly powerful gravitational pull. In Hirsch's fiction, there is absence and there is presence, but absence always exerts the more powerful force.

In "Hydrogen Event in a Bubble Chamber," the narrator, a first year Ph.D. physics student in "supersymmetric string theory and its products," explains:

This makes me think about how folklore and tradition might be different if the Earth had a black hole instead of a moon. Maybe our fascination for things that shine would be shifted to things that attract. Imagine Romeo and Juliet discussing magnets instead of moonbeams. The division of year into "months" would be a product of menstruation instead of the waxing and waning of a glowing orb. Women would carry with us, each, our own black hole. A source of life and energy. A mysterious place: small, but with infinite draw.

Later, she ponders the absence of the moon and quietly sucks all the romance out of the shiny orb that circles our earth, thus charging it with even more power: "We look at the moon even though we both know it is only reflective rock and dust. We don't stare at it because of its mystery, but because it is pretty for what it is." Yes, and for what it is not.

In the beginning of "The Snakeskin," Mr. Adleman, a school administrator, has called an assembly: he has found an enormous snakeskin at the school and has vowed to punish the students responsible for it. Think about what a snakeskin represents: the fact that there is a snake but that it isn't visible. As one of the students points out, the missing snake had to be "too big for that skin." The snake's absence causes the students to become more and more nervous, and they eventually don shin guards and steel-toed boots. In the last line of the story, Mr. Adleman sits in a chair in the post-prom gym, watching the floor even though nothing is there.

"The Disappearance of Maliseet Lake" begins in medias res: "Peter bangs on our door at 3:30 a.m., waking us up. 'The lake is gone,' he says." The townspeople, who have grown dependent on fishing subsidies from the lake, are shocked and immediately begin to formulate plans on how to deal with the situation. Juliette Mills plans to fill the lake with buckets of water from the town's bathtubs. Smith, the narrator's husband, decides to go to the news outlets in the hopes he'll get paid for his story. Helen plants tomatoes in the new fertile soil, then cuts up squares of the lakebed and puts them in tiny bottles to sell as relics to tourists. Davis' Bait Shop becomes Davis' Market. Jimmy and Julie turn their boat repair shop into a bed and breakfast. It is Annette from the barbershop who circles the lake, "worrying rosary beads, chanting softly to herself." She sees the lake's disappearance as a sign from God. Ultimately, in a masterful demonstration of the law of not showing and not telling, Hirsh ends a scene with Annette not being present to explain her theory about God's "reverse flood." The narrator asks Annette what the townspeople did to be punished by God's wrath. Annette knows that there has to be an answer to this question because the lack of an answer would just be too awful. But of course, there is no answer.

The last story in the collection, "Why We Never Talk About Sugar," is about the uber-presence of things women love: "Reproduction had become divorced from sex," and should a woman experience love for anything, including inanimate objects such as a diamond watch or squares of dark chocolate, she could become pregnant with the object. There you have it: physical presence absurdly wrought in its least absent form, the non-symbolic gestation of the things that women love.

Hirsch has a knack for placing disparate storylines next to each other and weaving natural and unnatural laws together in a tapestry of the scientific and the absurd, flipping back and forth between the two poles until they meld together into a single space-time continuum. Along that continuum, Hirsh takes the reader beyond the page to the powerful and cavernous void of absence that derives its power from what has gone missing and what has not been said.