“I looked up, at the crowd in the diner, at all the crisscrossing lines made by people, the smells and emotions and energy that swirled around them, the traces they left, tiny as molecules sometimes, but still there, right there, right in front of me, a code I couldn’t crack, a riddle I couldn’t unravel. Because I was weak. Because I chose earthly attachments like Tariq and food over limitless power. I looked up, through fogging eyes, at the connections between people, the way they carried their pasts on their backs and their futures strapped to their chests, the way time itself was a shifting wave like smell or sound, something I could control, if I pushed a little further, if I became a little stronger.” —The Art of Starving
Sam J. Miller’s debut novel, The Art of Starving, is, perhaps, one of the most important books of the year. A graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, Miller’s science fiction and fantasy stories have been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Award and long-listed for the Hugo Award, and won the Shirley Jackson Award for his short fiction, but this book will undoubtedly, deservedly introduce him to many new readers in a major way. If you have teenagers, know teenagers, or ever were a teenager, you should read it. If you’ve ever been an outsider, or you’ve ever been lonely, you should read this book. If you’ve ever felt love and heartache, this book is for you. And if you want to teach someone about empathy, friendship, and self-acceptance, buy. Them. This. Book.
J.D. Sallinger’s The Catcher in the Rye captured perfectly themes of teenage rebellion and angst, and generations have read and identified with the protagonist, Holden Caulfield. Matt, the protagonist of The Art of Starving, is Holden Caulfield for a new alienated generation, and his story will resonate across barriers of race, gender, and age, giving voice to the voiceless.
Matt lives on the fringe of his school’s society. He’s aloof, lacks confidence, and is gay. He’s convinced himself he’s fat and disgusting, and starves himself by counting calories and get away with eating as little as possible. He knows he has an eating disorder, but his research into them only gives him ideas to more effectively hide it from the people closest to him. He’s also dealing with bullies, and his older sister, someone he idolizes, has run away from home. Matt is, justifiably, angry. At himself, at the bullies, and at his absentee father, who he blames for causing his sister to leave. All he wants is revenge—which is when he discovers the hunger that twists his guts also gives him supernatural powers. And his only thought is to use them to destroy.
I think we all want that sometimes: the ability to know things, and to hold power over those who’ve hurt us. When Matt attempts to find weaknesses in his enemies at school, however, he finds love instead. With his anger turned elsewhere, his powers growing while his body weakens, can he find redemption? Can he find love there too? And can he find the strength to battle his personal demons before he starves himself to death?
Matt narrates his story with an intimacy that reads like a journal. He has decided to create a manual for people like him—people who suffer from eating disorders—but it’s also his memoir. He’s a person caught between worlds. Matt’s observation of his mother’s view of him sums it up nicely: “She thinks I’m a child who needs to be protected from the horrors of grown-ups, because she somehow forgot that the world of children has its own horrors. And that the world of teenagers holds the horrors of both.” Every word of the novel supports this theme, reflecting a razor sharp image of what it means to be a teenager in an era still fighting towards civility and equality for all.
This is a tough book. It will challenge you in so many ways, and may change the way you think about your own inner demons. It will help open eyes and open minds toward recognizing and embracing the differences and secret pains of others. That is its power. How different, and how beautiful, our world would be if we could take its lesson of empathy to heart.