Book Review: ‘Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal’ by Mary Roach

Cayla Williams

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Front cover of Gulp by Mary Roach
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach, 2013 — Photo Credit: Mary Roach

I’d not thought much about enemas – let alone their capacity to deliver nutrients to the body in a round-about manner – that is, until I reached the fifteenth chapter of Gulp, by Mary Roach.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal explores the processes of eating, digestion and elimination from every angle imaginable. In her trademark humour and informative style, Roach approaches the alimentary canal in the same way that she does any topic of scientific inquiry: with an unquenchable curiosity and a strong stomach. Covering topics such as the role of olfaction (smell) in taste and salivation; the number of ways in which humans chew their food (there are four); the plausibility of the ‘Jonah and the whale’ scenario (on the basis of the query: can one survive being swallowed alive?); whether or not human flatus can be lethal; and megacolons as museum artifacts, Roach leaves the reader satisfied and, at times, a bit queasy.

Profile view of Mary Roach in red scarf
Mary Roach at TED Talk Conference 2009 — Photo Credit: Bill Holsinger-Robinson [Flikr]
Roach, a science journalist from New Hampshire, began her writing career in San Francisco as a copy editor and when working in PR for the San Francisco Zoological Society. Her press releases on wart-removal surgery for elephants and other Animal Planet-esque topics launched her career in science journalism and she later published a number of humour pieces and first-person essays in publications such as GQ, Vogue, the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic.

Though her seven books (of which Gulp is the sixth), fall within the non-fiction science genre (a few of her other books include Stiff, Spook, Bonk and Gruntand address cadavers, the afterlife, human sexuality and military science, respectively), Roach herself does not have a background or a degree in the natural sciences. As a result, Roach begins each book at the knowledge-level of the novice, making her the perfect investigator on behalf of the layman reader.

 

Gulp, for instance, is broken down into easily-digestible chapters (sorry), and, via her genuine inquisitiveness, thorough research and uncomfortable questions, together you get to the ‘bottom’ of the alimentary canal.

In the chapter titled ‘Stuffed: The science of eating oneself to death,’ Roach explores the very real possibility of, as the description suggests, eating oneself to death – which has incited in me a new phobia – whereby a healthy stomach can expand to the point of rupture; an ultimately lethal occurrence.

In ‘Up Theirs: The alimentary canal as criminal accomplice,’ the chapter illuminates a concept widely known and frequently a point of comedic reference: rectal smuggling among prison inmates and drug mules. Need-to-know tidbits from this chapter (in my opinion), include the fact that, among the police force, the slang term for ‘rectally imported’ is ‘hooped,’ and, in prison, the rectum is aptly renamed the ‘prison wallet,’ though Roach muses that ‘it could be “Radio Shack,”’ with a surplus of chargers, batteries, phones and SIM cards regularly ‘hooped’ past security.

This leads us back to the enema. Apparently, in the 1600s, the Catholic Church spent a considerable amount of time contemplating the enema as a solution to the hunger pangs incurred during Lent. As Roach explained:

The Church sought an answer to the nagging question: ‘Does rectal consumption of beef broth break one’s Lenten fast?’ […] Pharmacists of the day were turning a brisk business administering bouillon enemas to nuns and other peckish Catholics who found this helped them make it to lunch.

The enema was a commonly-practiced procedure among 17th century Catholics as ‘holy-water enema[s]’ were routinely used by exorcists of the time. Historically and staunchly against homosexuality, Catholics appear to have viewed the rectum as an orifice serving a number of purposes, none of which were intended to be sexual (much like many prison inmates and drug mules).

After reading three of Roach’s seven books, I’d rank Gulp as a close second to Bonk, a book about human sexuality, for obvious reasons but also because my consequential anecdotes about sex are better received at social gatherings than those about digestion and defecation. However, I found it easier to eat while reading Gulp than Stiff, her book about cadavers which is woefully (yet wonderfully), in-depth on the process of human decomposition. Nonetheless, in Roach’s books I’ve found an endless source of small-talk material, no matter how inappropriate.

Purchase Gulp and other books by Mary Roach here, or download the audiobook here.

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Cayla Williams