Fermentation: An Erotic Novel by Angelica J.
entered the world of Angelica Jacob’s novel Fermentation hoping to find a fellow traveler
on the heady, elemental paths of pregnancy. Eight months along with my second child, my body once
again harbors a sea of hormonally enriched fluids, rushing blood and engorged crevices, set to the
hyper-heartbeat of its coraline inhabitant, my languidly floating amphibious dweller. Not just the
carrier of an inland sea, I feel like an ocean in my own right, or at least a steamy coastal wetland
with abundant tributaries.
But I soon discovered that Odissa, the pregnant heroine of Fermentation, was on a
very different voyage, a lonely, land-locked trek, somewhere in summer, somewhere in France, in a
city abandoned by its garbage collectors to piles of rot.
At one point she longs to escape the relentless heat and share the “dark watery sack” her
child inhabits, but it’s as if she suffers from a mental drought. Having once fantasized that
pregnancy would bring a craving for “platters of oysters arranged on huge piles of ice,” she
develops a lust for cheese instead, forsaking watery analogies and frog-pond fecundity for those of
hot, yeasty fermentation.
Moisture is as crucial to pregnancy as it is
to a good fuck, but Odissa’s enigmatic lover, a fire-eater by trade, seems to have implanted her
with more of a spark than a tadpole. Serge’s sadistic attempts to teach Odissa to swallow flame are
superfluous given the fire he’s already ignited in her belly. Their relationship, once idyllic,
erupts with masochistic passion and soon burns itself out.
After Serge leaves to breathe fire with another woman in a cooler mountainous village, Odissa
seems to leave her body altogether, becoming increasingly detached from its unfolding drama even as
she documents its changes. Just like the
mythical Leda who succumbed to the swan, Odissa finds
herself more or less ravished and abandoned. Her craving for cheese becomes her only vital sign, and
she eats it defiantly. It is hardly comfort food she has chosen: every binge leads to haunting
erotic dreams, which she recounts in clinically stylized prose. It is in this realm that blood and
semen flow more freely: A woman has her throat cut by a razor as a man pumps her full of come and
then burns her body on a massive bonfire. A man fucks Odissa from behind in a barn as she is forced
to wallow on the floor in milk and then drink from a cow’s teat. This sloppy raunch is promising,
Odissa’s passion for cheese soon draws her towards a fatherly cheesemaker, who adopts her. The
cheesemaker teaches her the secrets of his trade, and of his own unrequited love. It is he who
spells out the analogy of fermentation and gestation:
Not until Odissa actually gives birth does an aquatic metaphor emerge, and then it arrives as
an overwhelming deluge: “My whole being was separating, splitting like a chestnut, and the water was
trickling and seeping and endlessly falling.” And so she swims through her contractions, and sinks
and drowns and resurfaces to breathe and push. And her baby emerges like a flying fish, “sunlight
catching its long feathery fins.” After the wonderful images of deluge, it is a strangely anemic
and passionless moment. “The child was born shortly after midnight. The doctor held her up by her
feet and she hung in the air like an object retrieved from the sea.”
Although I enjoyed reading this book, I was ultimately disappointed by it. While well-crafted,
Fermentation is highly allegorical and, well, dry. The metaphor of fermentation, rendered
less subtle by the division of each chapter into different kinds of cheese — from Brie to Emmental to
homemade — doesn’t finally add much sense to a book already overladen with ideas at the expense of
its narrative heartbeat.
Another reason for my disappointment was more selfish: the book failed to resonate with my
own pregnant sexuality. During pregnancy, my fantasies have circled around stories of male worship
at the alter of my over-sized, milky breasts, leading to brief and breathless fucking from behind that
is fueled by an uncharacteristic ability to go off like a firecracker at a touch. For me, pregnancy
makes the idea of promiscuity relatively safe again (I can only get pregnant once), and there is
something joyous about submitting to the physical intensity of gestation, the imperative of my
Yet Jacob’s portrayal of pregnancy is valid and intriguing. It is a story of a woman possessed
by the colonizing forces of procreation but refusing to give in — even at the moment of birth — to
its pleasures, its trepidations, its monstrously engulfing jouissance. It is a study of
pregnancy as profound bodily alienation, bordering on the self-hatred that accompanies depression
and loneliness. Nothing wrong with that. After all, this is an experience many pregnant women share
(and which blockbuster movies such as the Alien series prove to be a widespread subliminal
fear for both sexes).
It is possible that the narrative makes the most sense as an allegorical study of the triumph of
water over fire, or woman over man, through her power to give birth. But this reduces the book’s
meaning to another kind of dryness — that of a feminist tract — and that doesn’t feel right
either. The key lies, I think, in the final chapter, brief and enigmatic as it is. Here Odissa
breastfeeds her daughter, tastes her own milk, milks herself and eats her own breastmilk cheese.
Afterwards she dreams of seeing a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation come to life in a church
in Tuscany. In a reversal of the Leda myth, Mary lowers herself onto the angel, who lies
spread-eagled, his wings cushioned by pillows. There is a little power play as she teasingly lowers
her cunt over his face before allowing him entry. But ultimately it is a fulfilling and equitable
fuck that is infused with light compared to her ante-natal dreams. With her own fatherless, Christ-girl wrapped under her coat, Odissa later searches for Serge. Not finding him, she leaves the city and returns to the place where she first saw him, at Lourdes — home to pilgrims and sacred waters. The way the story then ends suggests Odissa’s struggle to combine, not vanquish, fire with water, revealing her commitment to the coexistence of men and woman at the most intimate level. The conceit of the smoldering moist cheese is — I guess — the hoped-for bridge.
Several times while reading Fermentation I wondered if it was a translation, hoping
this might explain its distancing literariness. But it’s not. Perhaps its publishers sold it short
by opting for an erotica sales pitch instead of allowing it to stand as a sexually riven prose poem
of heartbreak and the longing for union.