Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Review: "The Art of Starving" by Sam J. Miller

"My sin, my condition, is way worse. I choose not to eat because I am an enormous fat greasy disgusting creature that no one will ever feel attracted to. Now you can't see me, but if you could, you'd probably say what everyone else says. 'What are you talking about?' 'You are so skinny!'"

When Matt looks at himself in the mirror, he doesn't see the attractive young man that everyone else sees. He sees a grossly misshapen, grotesque freak, with red hair and bad skin. He sees the kid that his high school classmates ridicule and abuse, the one they call "geek" or "faggot." So he's taken matters into his own hands, and he subsists most days on the barest number of calories he can consume without people noticing.

"My best guess is that a spell has been cast on me, so that everyone else sees me as a scrawny gangly bag full of bones, and I alone see the truth, which is, as I mentioned, that I am an enormous fat greasy disgusting creature."

Luckily for Matt, his mother works the overnight shift at the town's slaughterhouse, and she has more than enough issues of her own, including worrying about whether she'll get laid off, to monitor Matt's eating habits. Matt's older, take-no-prisoners sister Maya has disappeared, allegedly to record music with her punk rock band, and she only calls home or emails periodically, without sharing any information on her whereabouts. So there's no one really to watch Matt destroy his body.

Matt is convinced that Maya ran away because she was hurt, either emotionally or physically, and he's fairly certain that one of the three bullies in the neighborhood—Ott, Bastian, and Tariq—had something to do with her disappearance. He's determined to get to the bottom of what happened to his sister, and when he discovers the truth, he will enact cruel violence on those responsible to get his revenge. He decides to start with Tariq, as he was the last person to see Maya (at least as far as Matt knows), and while Tariq doesn't stop his friends from their cruelty, he's not as cruel to others himself.

What Matt finds is that not eating actually makes him sharper. It helps him hear people's innermost thoughts, smell their fears, know what they're thinking and what their next moves will be. Suddenly he can slow time down, affect gravity, and cause things to happen simply by willing them to be so. He knows it's his hunger that is responsible for these powers, because whenever he is forced or tricked into eating by his body, he feels slower, sluggish, unable to focus on what is around him.

But the more Matt sees and hears, the more destruction he is causing to his own body, his own psyche. While his newfound confidence makes him less of a target at times, it makes him more so at other times, so he finds himself doubting whether he'll ever find the truth about what happened to Maya. Yet Matt also discovers that everyone carries secret pain with them, fears and anxieties they keep hidden, and which manifest themselves in different and destructive ways. Can he help those in need of saving, if he is powerless to save himself?

"I had spent my whole life listening to stories about what a man was supposed to be. Do. Look like. How a man was supposed to act. It had cost me so much hurt and suffering and courage to come out of the closet, to reject a huge piece of The Masculinity Prison that I never noticed I was still stuck inside it."

This is such a powerful, moving, disturbing book, but one I felt suffered from a bit of an identity crisis. Was it the story of a young man's struggle for self-worth, to be loved and accepted, and to find answers, and the horrible eating disorder he tries to keep hidden? Or is it a story that plays with the supernatural, with fantasy, as Matt discovers his newfound abilities resulting from his intense hunger?

I felt that The Art of Starving works best when it steered clear of the fantastical elements of the plot. Now, I love a good fantasy novel, but I felt that Matt's "powers" distracted from the more moving and affecting core of the book. I wasn't even sure at times whether the things that Matt was seeing happen were actually happening, or if he was simply imagining these things in a hunger-induced fugue of sorts. That confused me more than a few times.

But when the story focused on Matt, his mother, Maya, and the others with whom he was connected—in good and in bad—the book really hit its stride. Sam J. Miller, who in the Acknowledgments section, divulges that he suffered from an eating disorder when he was 15, is a fantastic writer, and he has created some memorable, beautifully moving characters that I won't soon forget.

I've always struggled with my weight, and know what it's like to be a teenager struggling with keeping your sexuality hidden while you're hating yourself and what you look like. The Art of Starving really packed a punch for me; I just wish I didn't have to share the pieces of the story which resonated so much with me with elements that didn't quite mesh. But still, this is a book which will touch you with the raw power of its emotions.

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