Sam J. Miller’s, The Art of Starving, follows the story of a young man who believes that through starvation he will acquire special powers. The less he eats, the more his senses sharpen. Miller’s protagonist, Matt, is a queer, high school junior living in a poor, rural town in upstate New York. Matt’s first-person narrative begins in late autumn, and the cold, repressive weather mirrors the outset of the story. Matt’s sister, Maya, has recently skipped town without explanation. Maya’s character is tough and independent. She likes rock and roll and claims that she left to record her band’s first album in Providence. But Matt feels that something must have happened to her, that someone must have hurt her to make her leave without being entirely honest with him. And he thinks he knows who did. There is a boy, Tariq, who Matt suspects Maya had been seeing before she left. Matt believes that Tariq and his friends know something about or had something to do with Maya’s disappearance.
As Matt deprives his body of food, he begins to cultivate his senses. He can smell, associating heightened, pungent scents with people or feelings; see sharp, dream-like visions of his sister and estranged father; and hear, somehow perceiving the internal sentiments that his classmates and mother are the least likely to divulge. Matt’s mother works at a local pig slaughterhouse cleaving massive chunks of meat and bone with heavy machinery. When she comes home from work her hands smell of pig’s blood. The factory provides the family’s source of income, as well as being the town’s primary place of employment. However, with the rising economic pressure to outsource factory work, the plant may be in danger of employee cuts or, worse yet, permanent closure.
Matt empathizes with the acute stress his mother feels as a community leader in their small town and as a single parent. Her husband left when the children were little. In one passage Matt recalls how in childhood he imagined that his father was a king, a villain, a sensitive artist, yet he knows that what he truly wishes for is a parental figure who he can relate to intellectually as well as emotionally. As the book progresses, Matt’s relationship with his mother is perhaps one of the most touching arcs of the text. Miller’s depiction of an imperfect, deeply loving parent-child relationship illustrates his aptitude for writing with emotional sensibility while portraying genuinely caring, flawed characters.
Matt is dedicated to practicing The Art of Starving because he imagines that through hunger he will be able to magically manipulate his senses and surroundings. He believes that this cultivated power will place him at the helm of his tumultuous life. However, Miller shows his readers that when bodily denial becomes obsessive, it is often indicative of more than simply the food itself. There are many ways in which we can deny ourselves sustenance.
Although the narrative in Miller’s story is beautifully rendered, it does not glamorize mental illness or anorexia. As Matt comes to terms with what his body hungers for and desires, his sexuality and eating disorder become intertwined: “Your body’s hungers are simple. It’s the mind that makes things complex, spinning a web of stories and fantasies and prejudices around something as basic as love, until we crave the stories more than the love itself” (Miller, 2017).
Miller understands that there is no simple cure for mental illness. Unlike many young adult novels that spin fanciful tales of recovery around a romantic partnership, The Art of Starving, evades this trope. The relationship that grows between Matt and another character in the story does not act as a panacea. Miller’s writing is sparse, yet the narrative he weaves is as absurdly magical as a Grimm’s fairy tale.
The author’s debut novel is a tender story about what we all hunger for, be that food, sex, love, power, respect, acceptance, or internal serenity. The Art of Starving reminds us that, ultimately, we alone can heal ourselves. And moreover, that healing may be the most spellbinding, gratifying special power that one can practice and hone with care over time.
The Art of Starving (HarperTeen) is currently on the ballot for the Hugo and the Nebula Awards. Sam J. Miller will be at the Baltimore Book Festival, which takes place the weekend of September 28th-30th, as part of the tour for his latest novel, Blackfish City (Ecco Press; Orbit). He will be participating in panels on LGBTQIA science fiction, futuristic cities in fiction, and the politics of resistance in speculative fiction. To learn more about all of the authors coming to Baltimore for the event visit: baltimorebookfestival.com