The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes
by David Atkinson
EAB Publishing, 2014
ISBN-13: 978-0692200773, 186 pp., $10.76 paperback
David Atkinson's The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes is about three people who become trapped, for mysterious and physics-defying reasons, inside a quaint little restaurant called the Village Inn. It’s a plot straight out of the Twilight Zone and an intriguing premise for a novel.
The narrator is Cassandra, a young woman bitter about losing her boyfriend Thomas to her friend Kate, who are her two companions in the Village Inn and sit opposite her in a booth. She often passes the eternity the three of them face by making up stories about the people in the restaurant. Sherri, their waitress, has a "connection problem." Without knowing it, her body's cells have a polarity opposite that of the rest of humanity; she has never actually physically touched another human (merely come within micro-millimeters), causing her to suffer a confounding loneliness. The manager, a woman built like a "linebacker," is rarely seen outside her office because she has a debilitating phobia of Village Inns and prefers to hide. When she was little, her grandmother fed her endless servings of Village Inn pancakes, and when she died the manager became horrified of both Village Inns and pancakes. She became a manager with the hope of confronting her phobia, but it has failed, and she remains locked away behind a door by the restrooms. Cassandra does not stop at people. She also imagines the lives of the food at the restaurant. Every day "Leonard pancakes" gets fried from batter into existence on the kitchen stove, and every day he gets eaten. ("Leonard pancakes had hopes and dreams. He had aspirations. Even more important, he had his own consciousness, awareness of himself and his surroundings. Leonard pancakes was alive.") Except it is not really Leonard pancakes that gets eaten. By the time he gets served, the life has always gone out of him, so that what gets eaten is just some fluffy, yeasty, buttery flap of cooked dough. Far from salvation, it is a tragedy. ("After all, he was pancakes. His life goal was to be eaten, but this phenomenon never allowed for such. Thus, Leonard pancakes was tremendously unhappy.")
Cassandra tunes in to her readers from time to time to address them with an imperious "you," often at the beginnings and ends of chapters to assure them that the current far-afield train of thought is relevant. When she is not imagining the life stories of restaurant employees or Leonard pancakes, she is trying to convince Thomas and Kate to play along in creative food-themed mind games.
The book opens, for instance, with Cassandra saying, "'Describe a breakfast item as someone suffering in purgatory. Think Dante.'" Kate is first to take up the challenge. "'Steak and eggs'," she says, are in purgatory because, although neither deserves to be there—steak has "'ambitions'," like being served at dinner one day, and "'eggs'" has a promising future ahead of it but "'can't see as far as dinner'"—both are stuck to each other, like two runners whose left and right legs are bound together. Thomas goes next. "'Eggs Benedict only ever wanted to be a united breakfast,'" he says. "'It's all there, English muffin, ham, poached egg, and hollandaise. Tastiest of the breakfasts. Truly perfect. It's attained everything it ever wanted to be, everything it ever could be. Eggs Benedict should be truly happy.'" Unfortunately for Eggs Benedict, however, all its life it has been falsely accused of being a traitor, "'because of the Benedict thing.'" Failing to see that this is little more than gossip, Eggs Benedict suffers terrible "'self-loathing,'" and, therefore, must remain in purgatory. Finally, it is Cassandra’s turn. "'Garden skillet,'" she declares. "'It has to stay there because it's not complete and it can't ever be complete without ham chunks.'" Thomas contests it: "'It's healthy, low-fat.'" But Kate likes it. "'I think the garden skillet has a lot it needs to be forgiven for,'" she says, and wonders, Maybe there’s some place even worse than purgatory?
Briefly I had thought, nearing the end of The Garden of Good and Evil and Pancakes and still dutifully wading through the inane musings of Cassandra's mind, that their predicament at the restaurant might be an elaborate allegory for Cassandra's relationship to Kate and Thomas, and the fact that before Thomas had been dating Kate he had been dating Cassandra. One chapter, after all—about a pet shop employee who leaves his initial employer in order to work for someone who can accommodate his abilities and ambitions—illustrated exactly the sort of wonky allegory it might take the form of. (The chapter ends, "Of course, I might be talking about something other than a pet shop here.") And it's true that this subtext runs throughout and that in the penultimate chapter Cassandra at last foments a drama that gets them kicked out of the restaurant, when she tricks Thomas and Kate into saying that she, too, is dating Thomas. Where before the glass doors mysteriously would not budge, now the manager pushes them easily aside and shows the three of them out.
If there is a great reveal, and the whole thing has taken place in Cassandra’s mind, the moment of revelation fails to clarify or to satisfy. Kate and Thomas get in their car and drive away. Cassandra returns to her life, where evidently only a few hours have passed. Her pet dog is alive and well; things are suddenly looking OK. Vaguely she wonders if she and Thomas might still get back together, that the whole thing might resolve itself over one long, long meal. Maybe next time it will be "Appleby’s." Or "Olive Garden." Her last words are, "I could spend a while there; maybe even all the rest of the time there is." With any luck, she will dine alone.—Scott Carpenter