America's deodorized fiction.

All about fiction.
Oct. 12 2004 7:35 AM

Scents and Sensibility

Has American fiction been deodorized?

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In Europe, smells became associated with the lower classes and with foreigners; the pervasiveness of this classification system endures in literature. Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) that class distinction in the West can be encapsulated in "four frightful words … the lower classes smell." In America, evidence of past class distinction based on scent can be found in such unlikely pages as the Hardy Boy series, in which the smell of cabbage often accompanies descriptions of lower-class residences.

But today, we Americans have cleaned up our act. We're both a more egalitarian culture and a more sanitized one. We live in a society in which some of the sexiest segments on TV are ads for deodorant, a society in which pine-scented tree ornaments often hang from taxicabs' rear-view mirrors. Equipped with garbage disposals, Scope, and Lemon Pledge, unsavory odors have been expunged from our lives as much as possible.

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As I mentioned, I started this quest for smell a few months ago. Recently, when I began to notice the publication of a spate of novels incorporating, to various degrees, the events of 9/11, I searched them for scent. It's there.

In Nicholas Rinaldi's new novel, Between Two Rivers, he depicts his character Maggie waking up on Sept. 11: "There's an odd smell in the room, acrid, bitter, and when she pulls open the drapery and looks through the window, she feels a strangeness, something wrong. … She moves about the apartment, checking on the windows. Most are closed, but a few are open a crack, and powdery white stuff, gray-white, has sifted in. And the odor, the stench is deep into the sheets on the bed and the towels in the bathroom."

In Art Spiegelman's graphic novel In the Shadow of No Towers, Spiegelman describes rushing through downtown Manhattan with his wife as they try to find their daughter whose school is near the World Trade Center towers. In his depiction of the journey, Spiegelman metamorphoses into the mouse from the Maus books, as he mentally conjoins the stench of Manhattan soot and the smoke of Auschwitz gas chambers.

Last week two American scientists, Dr. Richard Axel and Dr. Linda B. Buck, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for providing a molecular understanding of how people who smell a lilac, for example, in childhood can recognize the scent as adults and also recall associated memories. Their findings not only provide a scientific explanation for Proust's memory-triggering madeleine, but also suggest that with the publication of more novels set in New York around 9/11, smell may no longer be the forgotten sense in American fiction.

The author wishes to acknowledge Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, by Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott.

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