Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161
Although The Secret House is not a work of fiction, it reads with the same sense of drama as does good fiction. One could say that Bodanis uses no characters to achieve this sense of drama, or one could say that he uses billions, even trillions. There are no human characters other than the faceless and nameless occupants of the house and their dinner guests, and they are mere stage props. On the other hand, Bodanis parades before the reader endless masses of insects, germs, bacteria, and other invisible inhabitants of the secret house. In a very real sense, they are the characters of the book.
Bodanis is interested in those realities that lie behind daily existence, which most people take for granted. The secret houses that humans inhabit seem to be one thing to the naked eye, but to the microscopic eye they are something vastly different. By focusing on a typical day in the life of one house and its two occupants, Bodanis provides the reader with a microscopic eye and thus brings to light the secrets of the secret house.
Having brushed their teeth with toothpaste made up of 30 to 45 percent water, chalk, some titanium dioxide to make it white, some gummy molecules from seaweed, paraffin oil, and a large helping of detergent, the occupants of the house descend to the kitchen for breakfast. This meal, for many people, is a culinary highlight; for others, it is simply a quick cup of coffee to get the body ready to face the day. After reading Bodanis’ treatment of the breakfast scene and all that goes into it, one might wish that the normal eating routine consisted of only two meals per day—or better yet, none at all. They are aware of neither the ingredients that have gone into their toothpaste nor the hordes of bacteria that await them in the kitchen. After a description of the egg in the refrigerator that has been absorbing bacteria all night through microscopic holes in its shell, Bodanis turns to the kettle in which the water is boiling for coffee. Reminiscent of long-gone cretaceous lagoons, the kettle’s interior is populated by great numbers of floating creatures that merge and grow in their bubbling home, exuding an ancient form of oxygen that wafts across the kitchen. Some of these creatures make it into the coffee cup, perhaps to be joined there by bacteria from the milk used to dilute the coffee.
Next comes the margarine, which was invented during the reign of Napoleon III as a cheap source of fat for those who could not afford butter. Today soy fat joins fat from squished herrings and fat from pigs as the base for margarine—an unpalatable mess indeed. Low-grade milk is added, however, along with extra-strong dyes and flavorings, to make it all resemble the pictures of sunkissed meadows on the package, before it is spread thickly over toast, rolls, pancakes, and the like.
Following the kitchen drama, the occupants of the house prepare to leave for work. Bodanis describes the male occupant’s tugging and yanking of his trousers to get them on and the resultant unseen tearing of threads that weakens the garment. While the male struggles with his trousers, the female is punishing her lips with a concoction of shortening, soap, castor oil, petroleum wax, perfume, food preservatives, fish scales, and red dye—lipstick. Long forgotten, apparently, is the occasion in 1924 when the New York Board of Health considered banning lipstick because of the fear that men might become poisoned from kissing women who wore it.
If the woman’s application of lipstick may seem an act of vanity, then consider the man’s shaving. Though his trousers suffer tears and rents as he puts them on, his face is brutalized to an even greater extent during the act of shaving. Although facial hair is dead, skin cells are not, and those cells that surround whiskers are slashed and ripped by what to them (if cells could think) must seem to be a jagged and rusty giant metal rake. Bodanis gives some consolation as, by comparison, he describes earlier methods of shaving that relied on rough bronze knife blades or filed flints. The modern male then braces his face with after-shave lotion— essentially 40 to 60 percent pure ethyl alcohol, with an anesthetic and some perfume added—and he too is ready to face the world.
This irony of the often-threatening reality that encroaches upon the lives of oblivious human beings is underscored by juxtaposition: for example, Bodanis moves from a description of medieval feasting habits to an analysis of the modern dinner party, where people still gobble food with little concern as to what is in it—the “living fungus bodies, great writhing colonies of the stuff, safely nestling within the cavities of the Roquefort cheese, let alone the huge numbers of bacteria, swimming, gliding, bouncing, and plodding through everything else.” As the guests sniff the food, dribble it, spill it, and wipe it, the air heated by their bodies rises from the floor and gets trapped in clothing or in bodily crevices. Carried by this air are such travelers as grit, pollen, fungus spores, asbestos particles, mite corpses, and sweat residues—none of which would seem to be compatible with an evening of dining.
As if all the above were not enough to make dining a somewhat precarious event, some dinner guests complete their repast with a cigarette. Bodanis notes that the average cigarette smoker takes about eleven puffs from each cigarette he lights up. Thus, he inhales very little of the cigarette’s smoke, most of which then floats across the room. Bodanis paints a frightening picture of the poisonous chemicals turned loose by the cigarette smoker. He calculates that something on the order of two billion clotted chemical balls bounce out from a single cigarette. These balls float up into the air before they fall to cling to whatever they hit first—hair, clothes, carpet, furniture, and the like.
In discussing the bath at the end of the day, Bodanis ranges from the mysteries of the whirlpool created as the water drains out to why the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chose to put its launch site in Florida. While her companion relaxes in the tub, the woman of the house works diligently to remove the day’s germs from her face. Bodanis points out that people are indeed fortunate that they cannot see the horde of creatures that live on the human face. Cold cream may remove dried makeup, but it has no chance against these armored mites that are anywhere from 30 to 50 microns across. Not to worry, says Bodanis, these creatures are relatively harmless, and it might well be dangerous to try frantically to wash them off, because they tend to multiply after a washing.
The inhabitants of the house eventually get to sleep, but the house itself, with all its secrets, never sleeps.
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