The Art of Starving is the debut novel of author Sam J. Miller, just out this past July. It is the story of Matt, a teenage boy who discovers that he develops supernatural powers when he starves himself. He is in desperate need of these powers, as his world is spinning rapidly out of his control. His single mother is in danger of losing her job. Maya, his sister, just ran away from home. There are bullies at his high school. It is up to Matt to make everything safe for his family in a hostile town. He sets out rules at the beginning of each chapter with the intention of helping a future reader who may find themselves in similar circumstances:
Regular contributors Lisa Mahoney and CS Peterson recently sat down to chat about Miller’s new book.
This appreciation contains spoilers - you have been warned.
Lisa Mahoney: I have this stereotype that the adolescents in YA fiction are self-absorbed and angsty, which is understandable because they are seeking to control factors often out of their control. To me, this book seems to fit that mold. What do you think?
CS Peterson: That is a widespread perception and some YA falls into that category. But YA is more of a demographic than a genre. What separates YA from adult literature are PG13 type limitations, though not always. Then again, there are those that would say that a lot of American literature is self-absorbed and angsty. You could go there with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. And Matt, the protagonist in The Art of Starving, holds Kerouac up as a male ideal. Toni Morrison famously said “everywhere, everywhere, children are the scorned people of the earth.” Given a position of personal powerlessness, fantasies of superhuman abilities are enticing. Matt is denied power because of his sexuality and because he is still a kid. With no dependable male guidance he looks to literature, mostly works that are stereotypically male. Even the form of the novel reflects this: it’s modeled on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
LM: There aren’t a lot of positive male role models in the book. The father is an absent runaway who turns out to have been a wife-beater. Matt suspects the jocks of having hurt his sister, yet he is disgusted that he both admires and hates them. Most of them are creeps, except for Tariq, whose father is another abuser, and Tariq turns out to be sexually repressed. Any positive male role models here are distant, in books. We have Sun Tzu, whom you mentioned, and the Buddha, whom Matt quotes often and seeks to emulate, but also more questionable models: Jack Kerouac and his buddy Neal, who are not, as Matt’s sister points out, to be admired for their love-em-and-leave-em treatment of women in the pre-Pill era. On the other hand, Matt’s mother is strong and capable, though she struggles with alcohol; the girls in school are understanding and sympathetic, though unimportant to Matt; and his sister, Maya, seems a self-confident punk-rock goddess to her little brother. She swoops in with wisdom and support at the moment of his greatest need.
CSP: But when Maya swoops in the reader is never sure if it is real, or a Maya created in Matt’s delusional mind. The distrust the narrator has for his own experience and for his unreliable body spills over into the mind of the reader. Matt is full of doubts about what is happening to him. He doubts the reliability of his own perceptions. He discovers the powers through the experience of heightened senses when he starves himself. His senses are, literally, tingling. Matt’s doubts about the superhuman effects he feels from starving himself kept me off balance as a reader, and I was always wondering how reliable Matt was as a narrator.
LM: Matt himself warns us that sensory delusions are typical of a body experiencing starvation. Therefore, he is a reliable narrator, it’s just that we can’t be sure that he’s actually hearing things through pipes, and so on. However, if the fundamental conceit of speculative fiction is that a reader goes into a book ready to accept things that are not possible in day-to-day reality, is it speculative fiction if Matt’s superhuman senses and mind-reading might not really be happening, and we are asked to question everything? At one point he posits that the most amazing thing he does is the result of him being delusional when he hears a particular news story. Yet at the end of the story we are led to believe Matt does indeed have superpowers, and that they’re not dependent upon starvation after all. So I don’t have an answer as to whether this is speculative fiction or not. My take is that, as far as this book goes, it doesn’t matter whether Matt learned by deduction or by superhuman senses the things he needed to know to conduct his investigation as to the whereabouts of his sister; either way, the story he tells us is an important element in the larger story of Matt growing up and accepting himself as he is.
CSP: There is a tradition of novels where the protagonist is experiencing mental illness and the reader has to question what is true. Fig by Sarah Elizabeth Shantz is one example, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenburg is another. In both books the speculative element is a manifestation of the narrator’s delusion and their tenuous grip on reality.
LM: Throughout the book, Matt is in the company of boys who are monsters. He even becomes monstrous when he starts to hang out with them and do what they do, telling himself it is all to get them to trust him enough to find out what really happened to his sister. But he comes to relish feeling like part of a group instead of an outcast. Once when he accompanies the super-cool soccer team to an away game, he suggests framing a kid from a rival school with a joint, and after he does it:
Meanwhile, Matt is trying to find his sister, Maya, who gave “recording an album” as the excuse for running away with her punk band, Destroy All Monsters. To Matt she is like a savior, her music liberating, her strength upon her return helps him through his recovery. At the same time, pigs, whose behavior is random and violent, seem human to him:
Yet moments later “Matt-the-monster” turns these pigs into a weapon and calls them monstrous-looking things. Matt’s story is about learning to be okay with himself while making mistakes along the way. He’s not a monster for being gay, and he’s not comfortable acting like a monster to fit in.
CSP: Self-acceptance is a big part of Matt’s journey, but it goes beyond that. Matt is attempting to construct his identity as a man. The adult men he encounters abandon and abuse, and he doesn’t want to be like them. He tries out the models he finds in literature and media but they do not seem much more reliable. He does briefly encounter an openly gay character and has the idea that there are others like him, somewhere. In media, gay characters have often been portrayed as villains, monstrous, magical and/or unlovable. His internalization of these depictions play out in his encounters with the three jock characters who rule the school. In the climax of the action—where Matt may or may not be in a kind of dream—the most abusive boy stands above Matt on a massive stairway and asks “What are you?” Matt doesn’t know what to say and this breaks the spell:
LM: Finally, doubts about delusional superpowers and the theme of overcoming internal and external monstrosity come together in the end when Matt is thinking over what may have happened at the climax:
CSP: I was a little disappointed at this point in the book because it started to sound a little preachy, like an afterschool special on the disease of the day. His mom sits him and his sister down and says “this is what the addictive personality is and it’s hereditary.” Matt posts his daily calorie count on each diary entry. I had been so worried about Matt starving himself to death for so long at this point that I was relieved that he had gotten into a recovery program. But the original promise of the book—that it was speculative—appeared to have been broken, and this was a bit of a let-down for me. Then Matt is eating chicken nuggets and decides to become a strict vegetarian, essentially replacing one obsessive behavior with another.
LM: Okay, but you have to admit that Matt’s right that chicken nuggets really are gross. I’d never eaten them and when my son as a baby got a packet of them, we ripped one apart. They look all spongy inside, did you know that? Not like real chicken at all. We took them away from him and impaled one on our car’s antenna. It stayed there unchanging for six months before we took it off again. Not even the birds or squirrels wanted it.
CSP: At the end of the book, Miller still leaves me with questions about the reliability of the narrator. The choice whether or not to believe in the magic is left for the reader to ponder. I want to believe there was something more. I remember the time Matt called for his mother and later we find that she heard him, though he was miles and miles away. Another time Matt reaches his hand into a vision of his sister sitting on a cold beach at night, and his friend asks him how he suddenly holds a handful of freezing sand. Every evidence of Matt’s supernatural abilities seen by others connects him with his family. Matt has doubts. I have doubts. My doubts have doubts. Perhaps Matt can make a pig fly, or perhaps he will become truly superhuman on the day that they do.
Whether or not pigs can fly, The Art of Starving is an intriguing and moving debut. We look forward to Miller’s next book, Blackfish City, out in 2018.