Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong is a coming of age story narrated by Linda Hammerick, looking back on her childhood in Boiling Springs, North Carolina in the 70s and 80s. The main drama of the book is the interactions between different members of Linda’s family, and Linda’s efforts to make her way amid the secrets and dysfunctions around her. One of these secrets is Linda’s, which she only shares with her best friend: Linda has the very rare condition of lexical-gustatory synesthesia. When she hears certain words, she can taste them.
Although her synesthesia is not the whole point of the book, it is a major component, and also the origin of the title, so I’ll start with it. It’s a brilliant device, and such an obvious shortcut to evocative writing that I’m surprised I’ve never seen it used this way before. Lots of writers employ synesthesia in their prose, as a poetic device (e.g. describing a noise as sharp, describing pain as bright), but here it’s built into the character. It allows Truong to frequently assail the reader with the most immediate, vivid sense one can evoke in the written word—taste. Peach cobbler, bread and butter pickles, and sourdough bread register with a reader at an intensity which fuzzy, shrill, or sea foam green do not. At the same time, taste descriptions are normally very difficult to work into a story, because most of the time we aren’t tasting anything. So having a character who experiences vivid, hyper-specific tastes when she hears words feels like a cheat, but an effective one nonetheless. There’s such a pleasure in discovering which words pair with which flavors, in reading dialogue that is peppered with dozens of tastes.
And that is, ultimately, why the synesthesia isn’t just a gimmick, or a way to quickly pull the reader into any scene: Truong commits to it fully in multiple ways which cause complications for the book. The first, most obvious commitment is that the tastes are always rendered in the dialogue, every single time. For instance, here is her teacher calling role:
As I said, this is like jabbing a live wire into the reader’s insular cortex (good 👍), but it effectively throttles the dialogue (bad 👎 or at least a challenge for a writer.) Truong doesn’t just turn it off when it’s inconvenient—it’s always there, just like it’s always there for Linda. And that’s the other major way Truong commits to complication—Linda’s synesthesia is frequently a hindrance to her. In school, she has trouble focusing, and eventually has to start smoking (which dampens the “incomings”) so she can improve her grades. This compelling, juicy literary device has realistic consequences for the character and how she interacts with others; who she does and doesn’t reveal it to is a major plot point.
The other thing that sells it, that makes it rich rather than cheap, is that the pairings of flavors with words are arbitrary. It would be so easy to make a kind of game of this, and communicate Linda’s feelings about certain characters or places through her synesthesia, but that’s not how it works with people who really have it. For Linda, “Dill” is faithful—it tastes like itself—but most food words are not. She enjoys it when her mom calls her selfish, because “selfish” tastes like corn on the cob. This means Linda has a very different relationship with words than everyone around her—an extreme version of the way all of us experience certain tastes, emotions, and even words, in unique, incommunicable ways. As Linda narrates, “But we all haven’t tasted the same unripe fruit. In order to feel not so alone in the world, we blur the lines of our subjective memories, and we say to one another, ‘I know exactly what you mean!'” (15)Read More »