Upon first seeing the title of The Art of Starving, I thought there could only be two major things it would be about; either following the trials of a person struggling through famine/poverty/war, who struggles to survive these hardships while literally starving, or it would be some romanticized tale of an eating disorder, possibly with some “love heals all” thrown in there too which I’ve seen far to many times when regarding stories about mental illnesses. But while perhaps The Art of Starving is closer to the latter, it definitely isn’t a sanitized or pretty thing: this novel is ugly, which is ultimately both a strength and a weakness for it.
In Sam J Miller’s acknowledgements at the end of the novel, we see him mentioning his own eating disorder as a teen, and reminiscing about how seldom this is recognized in teenage boys vs girls, hence the subject for his novel here: The Art of Starving is about a teenager named Matt, who suffers from an eating disorder, but this is only one piece of the puzzle and pain of his life. We see Matt enduring the homophobia and loneliness of his small-town life, the shame of seeing yourself compared to those who exist in a higher socioeconomic class, the fear of his single mother losing her job, his family history with addictive behaviors, and most pressingly for Matt, the loss of his sister in his life after she has seemingly run away from home. Matt is convinced that someone hurt her, causing her to run away, despite the brief contact from his sister stating that she is okay from time to time. Matt’s desire to find his sister thereby comes directly face-to-face with his eating disorder through that fact that when Matt starves himself, he discovers new abilities and heightened senses that he thinks he can use to find out what really happened to her. And I know you may be thinking, “Superpowers through starving yourself? That sounds… problematic,” because that’s what I was thinking at first too! But rather than make it seem like these powers are a good thing, the novel delves more into their implications for Matt, and how he chooses to use them.
What I really got out of this novel was a story about anger, pain, and trying to hold on to some form of control in this world that no one has any sort of power over. It’s not a pretty thing, and I am glad in some ways that Miller does not shy away from going deeply into Matt’s anger and destructive thought process. But this is also where this novel is difficult to read: not because it is bad, per say, but because it is hard to get through. It’s kind of similar to what I’ve heard from a few people in regards to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, in that it’s difficult to get inside the head of someone who is destroying themselves. It is painful and can bring up a lot of different emotions, none of which are good. I found this here with the character of Matt, as well, as he slowly destroys his body, and tries to explain why he is doing what he is doing; I wanted to shout at him to stop his quest to hurt those he held any sort of anger towards, as well as scream “can’t you see what you are doing to yourself??” at him over and over again. But clear as day, presented within Matt’s narrative point of view we see the distorted and obsessive thoughts, the ones so hard to break out of no matter how much we might recognize they are destroying us. I understand what’s going on, but man is it frustrating to witness.
In many ways, this novel is a lot to handle, and there are a lot of subjects to deal with. I wouldn’t say it was a pleasing read, but also wasn’t a bad one. But there were some things that maybe could have been finessed a bit more for my liking. One small aspect was the predictability of certain elements, so then the reveals weren’t so impactful (though to be honest, I didn’t find these leadups too distracting from the novel overall, just one of them which seemed like it was supposed to be a big twist or turning-point that I saw coming from a mile away). But one of the bigger issues I had in this novel in particular was the subject of the superpowers: it goes to a bit of a bizarre place, and while there is maybe some ambiguity as to whether or not Matt actually had some sort of abilities, or if it was just delusions. I think the consensus at the end is that he did develop some powers, but they are hard to understand the nature of and how this fantastical element really is supposed to fit within the narrative or thematic context. It’s just a bit of a bizarre mix of such down-to-earth and human themes, then paired up with the supernatural.
So in the end, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about The Art of Starving. Because it is so real and compelling, yet also so frustrating and difficult to take in all that destruction and pain; and then it also throws you on a bit of a bizarre loop at the end as well. But I loved the themes presented, and think for the most part they were handled well. Matt’s issues are not solved with a quick fix, and they aren’t pretty or quirky. They are dirty, and recovery is shown to be a hard process: love doesn’t solve all your problems, and sometimes people have their own issues or have trouble sticking with people when they are deep in their own. Sometimes we can’t stop something once we’ve started, and clinging on to your secrets seems safer than revealing them, no matter how they destroy you.
This novel is a strange ride, both following certain tropes I’ve seen many times before, but also super unique in a lot of ways as well. I can’t say that I loved it or hated it, but I cannot deny that there are a lot of strengths to be found within. I definitely feel like it would be worth a reread in the future. But I leave you now, with this quote near the end of the novel which truly struck me:
Being better isn’t a battle you fight and win. Feeling okay is a war, one that lasts your whole life, and the only way to win is to keep on fighting.