I spend a lot time thinking about fiction’s effects on its consumer. It is literally what I do for a living. Sometimes this happens in a scholarly fashion, and I read and think and talk with my students about how readers and critics now and in generations past have judged fiction’s effects: from Samuel Johnson’s worry in 1750 that fictions “take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will,” to Charles Carrollton, who writes to his daughter in 1796 warning her about the “languor and listlessness” that is sure to result from reading romances.
Other times, I find myself reflecting on my own responses to fiction: how when I recently read a contemporary novel for the first time in ages, I felt it calling to me when I was doing other things; how I read it greedily, like devouring a really good sandwich, or a taco, or something else that you can’t help eating as long as you’re holding it in your hands; and how I thought about (but did not follow through upon) researching cruises to Antarctica after finishing it, so vivid was its rendering of the characters’ South Polar expedition. Or I think about how after recently reading Candide while I had a high fever I found myself plunged into an abyss of despair that lasted for several days. Or I recall how watching Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle in the theater was deeply pleasurable in a way I can’t really explain but has, I think, something to do with the way it reproduces the feel and tropes of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Goonies that I loved when I was a child. Or I observe my children immersed in their games and videos and, yes, even sometimes books, and note, mostly with frustration, how difficult it is to pull them out of their trance.
In all of these instances, fiction’s effects on human beings seem mysterious, at once visceral and ineffable.
But then, other times, it feels so straightforward.
Case in point:
Wednesday January 24th: we go to see Paddington 2 in the theater.
Thursday January 25th: I start researching marmalade recipes online.
Saturday January 27th: I settle on Delia Smith’s Dark Chunky Marmalade recipe.
Sunday January 28th: I boil oranges and lemons for hours. Late at night, after the children are in bed, I scoop out the pulp and seeds, gather them in a tea towel, and squeeze out the juices. I roughly cut the tender, fragrant orange peels into broad strips and leave them to steep in the juices overnight.
Monday January 29th: I add all of the sugar in the house to the juice and peel and boil it, on and off, for several hours. It soon turns gloriously dark, somewhere between the color of dark maple syrup and treacle, and the pieces of peel turn translucent. It’s oddly suspenseful because, even when the heat is kept steady, the mixture has its own rhythm, surging up and threatening to overflow the pot’s rim ever so often, and actually boiling over once in a sea of orange foam when I have the effrontery to leave it unwatched for a mere minute.
Then comes the testing to see if it has set, which has been my downfall in previous marmalade-making trials. But to my surprise and delight, even from the first test there is already the hint of a wrinkle on the surface of the tiny pool of marmalade I put in the fridge to cool. And by the fourth test there is an unmistakable crinkle when I give it the merest nudge with my finger. Then I begin filling the jam jars I have dutifully sterilized per Delia’s instructions. La Bonavita kindly goes out to buy more jars when it turns out I have vastly underestimated how many jars my vat of marmalade will fill. The process of filling the jars is extremely messy because I don’t have the funnel that Delia recommends I use. Splotches of dark orange syrup gild every surface in the kitchen. But then, oh, the magic of seeing the dark ooze decanted into jars that line my kitchen shelves in neat rows, all that foam subsided into glassy stillness.
Tuesday January 30th: I make myself a piece of toast with butter and marmalade. The marmalade’s consistency is amazing, more like golden syrup or Greek honey than jam. This is no pale amber jelly. This is great raggedy pieces of peel bathed in glossy mahogany syrup.
When I was a child, my Mum would make marmalade every January. Though I’m sure she would protest now that she was never much of a marmalade maker, to me her marmalade was and is the Platonic ideal of marmalades: dark and sticky with thickly cut peel. She would make twenty or so jars, enough to keep us going throughout the year—although it was really only my Dad and I who ate the marmalade. The jars were stored on a long shelf in a dark hallway in the part of the ground floor of our house that was separated off from the rest by two sets of doors, like a bank vault, and was where my Dad saw his patients.
There was a tiny bathroom, a small waiting area, and the long narrow hallway. The door to my Dad’s consulting room opened from this hallway. If you kept walking along the hallway past the door to his consulting room, you would reach the door to a small dark cellar, the existence of which I did not like to even acknowledge, because on the rare occasions I’d seen the door opened, it appeared to be a portal into darkness itself, terrifyingly thick and musty. On the right of the cellar door was the ground floor entrance to the house, where my Dad’s patients would enter.
It was my job to go and fetch a new jar of marmalade when we had run out. To be honest, we hadn’t usually actually run out; it was that I disdained the bottom third of the jar. By that point, there would usually be a few odd crumbs or traces of butter tainting the marmalade, and so I would wrinkle my nose and agitate for a pristine jar to be opened. I would generally be allowed to open one if I went to retrieve it myself from “the passage,” which was how we referred to the dark narrow hallway that bordered my Dad’s consulting room, which now seems too Freudian to be true, but there you have it.
Visiting the passage to retrieve the marmalade was thrilling and terrifying in equal parts. There was the prospect of the abyss-like cellar at the end; and then there was just the fact that the passage was always very dark, even during the say, and felt cut off in its coolness and quiet from the chaos and noise of the regular domestic sphere. The only other time I would venture into the passage was to sneak in and listen at the door when my father was seeing a patient. At some point I confessed this transgression to my Dad; he wasn’t angry but talked seriously with me about why a therapist could not divulge what his patients revealed in their sessions. I argued with him, making my case as to why he should trust me with whatever secrets his patients disclosed to him. I would not tell a soul, I swore. I actually thought I would be able to talk him into telling me what his patients told him (and, no, I wasn’t satisfied with answers like, “their problems,” or “their childhood”; I wanted particulars) and was nonplussed when he proved unmoved by my pleas. I continued to sneak in and try, always unsuccessfully, to listen, whenever I dared.
Retrieving the marmalade was also a feat of daring. I would enter the passage very gingerly. It took some time to muster the courage to open first the outer and then the inner door that separated the bright stair hall from the dark passage. Once I had opened both doors I moved fast, grabbing a jar from the shelf and then bolting back to the stair hall and through to the warmth and light of the kitchen, as if the darkness would pounce on me given half a chance.
Thursday, February 1st: on a whim, I text Dr. F., “do you like marmalade?”
“Yes!!!” she texts back.
So I brought a jar to my session to give her. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, but it felt like a cosmic reparation of sorts to hand it over: darkness captured and bottled.