If you were a fan of Sloan’s debut, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, then you are in for a treat with his follow-up Sourdough. It’s a modern day fable that satirises, with great affection, Silicon Valley culture, hipsters, food markets and cult restaurants. It manages to recreate much of what made Mr. Penumbra so special while never feeling like it’s simply rehashing old ground. But you can rest assured his witty but sensitive prose, quirky characters and love letter to old and new technologies working in harmony are still present, but this time in the world of cooking, specifically bread-making.
Set nominally in the here and the now and the real, but maybe with a slight side-step towards very modern fairy tale, our heroine is Lois. She works as a coder for a San Francisco company named General Dexterity that makes robotic arms. Initially jubilant about finding her niche in the world (“Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: We are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted”) she soon realises it isn’t really giving her anything she needs and is making her stressed and unhappy. Sloan however gives his readers plenty in his biting but never mean-spirited descriptions of the hipsters and digital whizz kids who populate General Dexterity.
After a particularly stressful day Lois orders a takeaway on a whim from a flyer that’s been posted through her door from Clement Street Soup and Sourdough. The spicy soup and homemade sourdough bread proves to be restorative and Lois is soon living on a diet of food provided by the two brothers, Beoreg and Chairman, who run the takeaway. When they arrive on her doorstep one night with the news that visa issues mean they are having to close up shop, Lois nervously accepts their parting gift of a sourdough starter, from which she learns to bake bread. Things escalate from there and she ends up being invited to be part of a secretive underground food market full of vendors who merge innovation, new technologies and food; algorithmically optimised bagels, cricket flour cookies, “nutritionally complete food products” (a work in progress). Lois teaches a robot arm to make dough and sets up shop while keeping in touch with Beoreg via email about his dreams of opening his own restaurant.
Sloan is a natural storyteller, and the book is packed with tiny charming details meaning you’re instantly invested in Lois’ life. The book speeds forward at a pacy but never frenetic rate and you could easily get through it with a few dedicated hours - although be warned you will want fresh sourdough and butter on hand as the descriptions of food, especially bread, are utterly mouth-watering. The exploration of the ways that new technologies can interact with and enhance traditional things is so refreshing in a world which seems constantly to pigeon hole; this is a world where innovative goes hand in hand with respect for where things have come from, where science is lauded but people are at the heart of everything. Above all Sourdough is a book full of joy; for bread, for people, for telling stories, and it would be a hard-hearted person not to get swept up in it.