Digression is an art form. It is also genetic. I know. I know this because I have inherited a propensity towards digression from my mother who inherited it from her mother and possibly father, and they, in turn, inherited it from one parent or another, I assume, and so forth. I remember the exact moment when Michel realized that my digressions were genetic as his eyes got increasingly wider during one of my mother’s stories. My dad saw his face, grinned, and said, “Oh, is this familiar? Yes, it’s genetic.” But a good digression is more than a detour in the story. A good digression paints a picture, creates connections, reveals hidden meaning, adds depth and flow to a story. A good digression is completely and viscerally satisfying.
So imagine my consternation when author Michael Paterniti, after regaling the reader of the epic nature of the digressions of Ambrosio, the cheesemaker, in his new book, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese, disdains the very art of digression…in a digression! In a footnote (and his book is littered with them), Paterniti says, “I would soon find out that digression was a national pastime in Castile, that to get to the crux of any matter you had to listen for hours, weeks, months, years. Not a fan of annotations and footnotes, I realized I had no say in the matter. Every story here was littered with footnotes and asides. And even then, after the storyteller concluded his tale—or, rather, after you’d gathered and assembled the shards of his story from a hundred other digressions—well, you’d go to the bar and have it immediately undermined by someone else’s digressive, heavily annotated account of the same thing” (71-72). Well, yes, that is the way a good digression works. As a natural digressor who aspires to the artistic level of Ambrosio and his Castilian friends, I am slightly offended at Paterniti’s supercilious tone on the matter. As a storyteller himself, he should embrace the digression!
Despite his patronizing words, he does attempt to, though. As I mentioned, footnotes abound in this book, but unfortunately, digression does not appear to be genetic for Paterniti. So sad. A short while later, Paterniti, when discussing the dangers of allowing too much time at the end of a story, says, “Real life intervenes, and makes its mess of things” (73). Well, Mr. Paterniti, your footnotes, including your digression on time, intervene and make a mess of your story. There is no flow to his footnotes and asides. Often times, they are clunkily inserted, breaking off the movement of the story instead of enhancing it, causing me to have to reread the main text again to identify the purpose of the aside and to reenter the story. (And, if you’ll notice, I included the quote as it appears in the book WITH the UNNECESSARY COMMA! It is neither a series nor linking two complete clauses. You are a professional writer with a professional editor, Mr. Paterniti. Learn the rules of comma usage!)
But, wait! you may say. What about the title? This has got to be the world’s greatest title! I agree! Who does not want to read a book about love, betrayal, revenge, and CHEESE??? Which is why I about cried tears of rage when I realized that this book is not just about cheese and its relationship to a common Shakespearean plot but also, and at times mainly, about Paterniti’s existential crises. Perhaps that it a bit strong. Irritated disappointment may be a more accurate description of my reaction. When we meet Ambrosio, creator of the world’s greatest piece of cheese, in his eponymous telling room, he is magnetic. His story is one of love and passion for a disappearing way of life, love and passion for family and friends, and love and passion for good living. His story, told mainly in his own words, is compelling, engrossing, and beautifully crafted. When Paterniti focuses on Ambrosio and his heartbreaking tale, the book is mesmerizing. When Paterniti brings himself into it, it jerks the reader out of the world that so entranced Ambrosio and even Paterniti and into that messy and slightly distasteful real life.
I don’t quite know why I react so strongly to Paterniti. Perhaps it is that his “joyful” and “marvelous” writing smacks a bit of inauthenticity, like the writing student sacrificing their own style for one that is “higher” or “literary” to appease the professors. Or perhaps it is his co-opting of another person’s story as his own. Michel, currently taking a creative non-fiction class in grad school, has expressed a similar discomfort in writing pieces like these. The idea that you can take someone else’s story and profit from it or twist it to artificially make it your story is uncomfortable. Of course, I have read plenty of creative non-fiction pieces that tell other people’s stories, but there is something different about this one, a desperation on Paterniti’s part to insert himself into Ambrosio’s story. I truly believe that Paterniti does not mean to sully Ambrosio’s story but to honor it. I guess I just feel that as much as Paterniti wants the story of the cheese to be his own, it’s not. It’s Ambrosio’s.
I have a secret. I started this review before I had finished the book.
Now I have finished the book. As the book progressed, Paterniti acknowledged and worked through some of the ickiness of trying to co-opt another person’s story as one’s own. He talked about the 10-year long struggle to write the book and then to end it, his own obsessions and fears regarding his life, and how Ambrosio and his cheese both magnified and mitigated them. His wife, Sara, is a beacon of reason, and the book vastly improves upon her arrival as a more significant character. Bless you, Sara. Paterniti mellows as the book rolls along, and my response mellowed along with him.
However, I still feel uncomfortable with the story. Paterniti presents the book and the journey to its fruition as a decade-long life crisis in a way, trying to determine just who’s story he is really writing about: his or Ambrosio’s. But he never tells us what he truly needs or why he needs it. I don’t know why this crisis started in the first place or why it lasted so long. He bandies about suggestions like he’s trying to slow down time so his kids don’t grow up too fast or he can halt his progression towards death, but he doesn’t commit to these reasons. Honestly, the book feels self-indulgent and not in a charming way. It’s self-indulgent along the lines of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the astonishingly successful and astronomically over-rated Eat, Pray, Love (and who, interestingly, provided an “advance praise” blurb for the back of this book), or the totally reprehensible Julie Powell, author of Julie and Julia (a vile reading experience that produced a lovely and charming movie, thanks to Meryl Streep and the always wonderful Stanley Tucci). However, I do like Michael Paterniti as a person, whereas I don’t particularly care for the other two, and I would be interested in reading some more of his writings.
Ultimately this story is about the role fantasy and fairy tale play in surviving real life, and what bothers me is that in his attempt to figure things out for himself, Paterniti ends up trying to take the only thing Ambrosio has left his in life: his story, his fairy tale, and therefore his dignity. Ambrosio’s story is utterly compelling, if heartbreaking, and I wish Paterniti had focused on that rather than his own issues. The book simply doesn’t know what it wants to be. But that’s my own opinion. Perhaps you will feel differently, and I encourage you to read it and decide for yourself. That being said, I do truly believe, though, that The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese is the greatest title ever conceived.