The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller
Matt hasn’t eaten in days. His stomach stabs and twists inside, pleading for a meal, but Matt won’t give in. The hunger clears his mind, keeps him sharp—and he needs to be as sharp as possible if he’s going to find out just how Tariq and his band of high school bullies drove his sister, Maya, away.
Matt’s hardworking mom keeps the kitchen crammed with food, but Matt can resist the siren call of casseroles and cookies because he has discovered something: the less he eats the more he seems to have . . . powers. The ability to see things he shouldn’t be able to see. The knack of tuning in to thoughts right out of people’s heads. Maybe even the authority to bend time and space.
So what is lunch, really, compared to the secrets of the universe?
Matt decides to infiltrate Tariq’s life, then use his powers to uncover what happened to Maya. All he needs to do is keep the hunger and longing at bay. No problem. But Matt doesn’t realize there are many kinds of hunger…and he isn’t in control of all of them.
A darkly funny, moving story of body image, addiction, friendship, and love, Sam J. Miller’s debut novel will resonate with any reader who’s ever craved the power that comes with self-acceptance.
Initial thoughts: Two things initially stuck me about this book even though I just stumbled across it recently. First of all, the title, is strangely similar to a short story I published a while ago, The Art of Happiness (which is a second-person narration about a cat and a protagonist with depression), obviously both come from The Art of War and are an ode to the struggle against mental illness. Secondly, the writing style mirrors mine in a lot of ways — capitalizations for emphasis, some short sentences that start with the verb, the sibling that is gone for an unknown reason, eating disorders in high school boys, etc. I really, really wanted to like this book, especially given how few books there are on male eating disorders, especially written by a former sufferer. But a few things weren’t quite right for me so 4/5 stars.
What I liked:
Even before reading the acknowledgements, I could tell Miller knew a lot about eating disorders, and not just the facts, but how it feels. (This is an own-voices story in that the author also previously struggled with an eating disorder). I could list multiple instances where this becomes obvious but to name a few– the protagonist Matt being obsessed with food while restricting, seeing food as something guilty/sinful, anxiety habits like biting nails, and starving as an attempt at control. Beyond this, I was delightfully surprised, as a neuroscience major, at the vignettes at the beginning of each chapter that discussed the biology and psychology of sensation (obviously as part of a larger picture about sensation, control, etc, but nonetheless well done). Similarly, the calorie counts at the beginning of each chapter were a nice touch, not only mirroring Matt’s emotional state for the coming chapter but starting and framing each chapter both literally and figuratively.
The description of some of the effects of the eating disorder were put so eloquently, but also plainly enough that they made sense. Even after years of researching eating disorders, certain aspects didn’t become clear until I read this book, like the fact that some of the effects on the heart are because the heart is a muscle and muscle is eaten away by the body when there’s nothing else to break down.
I also loved the ending, which I will detail at the end of this post to avoid spoilers. Finally, this book tackled multiple issues, beyond eating disorders, in a commendable way, such as Matt being gay, Judaism, etc, but I wish some aspects were pushed a little farther (like how Judaism and spirituality presents in Rachel Lynn Solomon’s book, Our Year of Maybe. Here it feels intrinsic to the characters, even if their beliefs are unsure, rather than a characterization after-thought.)
Which leads me into… things I wish were different:
I understand this book more after seeing it was categorized “science fiction” but really its realistic with magic. Which I really don’t like.
(Side note on the term “magical realism” which I have purposely not used here. I have been taught this term in English classes, but its really a latinx word, from the works of Alejo Carpentier (especially The Kingdom of This World) as a way to express latin american identity as an almost impossible mix of African/European/etc cultures, in a way that seems like magic. As such, I try to stay away from using it unless discussing latinx works that utilize it).
I appreciate realism+magic in latinx literature, but I still struggle with enjoying it in any context. Especially in this book, the “powers” came off like the magical thinking of schizophrenia, and anyone who didn’t know better might assume “magical thinking” is a symptom of an eating disorder. From a literary perspective, I appreciate the metaphor of Matt’s “powers” but the overlap with other mental health issues and the very obviously contemporary setting were ultimately confusing.
Similarly, the martial arts “pressure points” Matt does on people seem plausible enough that a reader might believe them, but cannot happen in real life. All in all, the “science fiction” aspect of the book was too realistic to be anything but confusing, bordering into the territory of glorifying the disorder.
Additionally, the doctor brings up the eating disorder with a joke. No clinician I know of would ever, while first addressing the issue or thereafter, say “they don’t accept corpses on varsity” (p310). I mean come on. Similarly, while I buy Tariq not knowing how to talk to Matt, I don’t buy that he didn’t notice something was wrong. Sure, people are bad at recognizing/talking about these things, but at the stage Matt was at, he would have noticed.
Finally, Tariq pressuring Matt to be physical was just not ok. Do these things happen? Yes. Should it been brushed off as if its normal? Absolutely not.
Back to the ending.
I love that Tariq (Matt’s boyfriend) doesn’t save him. That being in a relationship doesn’t make all his problems go away, and in fact he doesn’t get better until he is on his own. I think there is too much of that narrative in general, but especially for people with eating disorders/body insecurities/mental health issues. In a way it helped keep the glorification of the disorder to a minimum, but also helped it stay realistic– you can be supported by other people, but they can’t help you. Even if its with support, you have to be the one to do the work (therapy, treatment, whatever it may be) on your own.