Eating Europe: A Meta-Nonfiction Love Story
by John Volkmer
Reviewed by Sarah Storm
Jon Volkmer holds the post of director of creative writing at Ursinus College, specializing in travel writing and travel literature. He has been published in such journals as PARNASSUS, PRAIRIE SCHOONER, TEXAS REVIEW, and PAINTED BRIDE QUARTERLY. As well as Eating Europe, Volkmer is the author of THE ART OF COUNTRY GRAIN ELEVATORS, a poetry collection. His professional foray into travel writing is incarnated in Eating Europe: A Meta-Nonfiction Love Story, an ambling narrative about his travels throughout Europe inspired and contingent upon his generation of a “visible product” to legitimize the Pearlstine Grant he is awarded by the Dean at his college. He is awarded the grant to research “Old Colonials vs. New Economies: Blurring Borders in the Post-modern Post-Nation State Euro-Transitional Era.” If you think that is a mouthful, it’s a light breeze compared to the torrent of painfully wordy existential rants that comprise the majority of the narrative. Much of the story, the “meta-nonfiction love story,” is made up of heady dialogue between Jon and his wife Janet, and while he strives to make disclaimers about his non-intent to set his wife up as “some snippy foil for the sake of narrative exposition,” that is exactly what she acts as throughout the story (4). From Amsterdam to Alsace to Provence and finally Paris, the epic love story of Janet and Jon unfolds, cut into 19 chapters, which utilize restaurant receipts as a framing device, and even picture said receipts at the outset of each section. Though Volkmer asserts in the introduction that the “nineteen receipts will stand in for the nine muses in this narrative,” we find that not only do the chapters, entitled “Restaurant le Luxhof: $37.20” or “Petit Casino: $52.31,” barely touch on the culinarily eponymous subject matter, but rather provide the backdrop for what the speaker undoubtedly perceives as the witty, entertainingly existentialist repartee he and his wife engage in, which in reality ends up coming off as incredibly narcissistic (5). Though the speaker claims to be aware of his own predilection for hearing himself postulate on just about anything, he does not see this as a potential source of aversion to the reader, and continues to “go off on pretentious literary tangents of dubious relevance” whenever possible (90).
The book is divided into two parts, the second written three years after the first: this allows for what Volkmer considers “interactive meta-fiction.” After writing the first part, he sent out 100 copies of the manuscript to everyone he thought might enjoy it and encouraged them to respond with comments and suggestions at EatEurope@flashmail.com, an email address he created solely for this purpose. The division between the first part of the book, which follows the nauseatingly blissful couple indulging in conversations that seem amplified, crafted to be read, and an excuse for the writer to flex his theoretical muscle at length in an uncontested forum, and the second part is striking. When Volkmer gets around to writing the second half three years after sending out the original manuscript, he cites the toll that September 11th and the current war have taken on his psyche and more importantly the psyche of his wife. When Volkmer speaks from a place of real emotion, like he does in the transition between the two parts, in which he reflects on his difficulty grappling with the social and emotional implications of his country in wartime, the effect is purely poignant narrative. Here he very effectively weaves contemporary, relevant American sentiments of disillusionment into his travel experience in Europe. Without relying on wit, sarcasm, hyperbole, or five-word-long strings of fourteen letter words, we see that Volkmer has a poeticism to his prose that really shines when he stops trying so frustratingly hard and just writes what he feels.
Though Eating Europe presents itself as a culinary tour throughout Europe, we end up hearing very little about great food and much more about the inner workings of a marriage complicated by the realization on the part of the wife of a writer that writers are inherently self-absorbed. While the extensive travel that the two partake in provides the milieu for an in depth portrait of the increasingly strained relationship, by the end of the novel Volkmer has not come up with a “visible product” to report back to the Dean as was the stipulation of his grant, and the reader is left feeling like the only “visible product” of having read this book is a pair of crossed eyes and the desire never to marry an academic.
Eating Europe: A Meta-Nonfiction Love Story
(West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press LLC, 2006)
ISBN: 1-932559-69-8. $34.00. 243 pp.