A few years back I quickly fell in love with the short fiction of Sam J. Miller. Published across a spectrum of electronic genre venues (Shimmer, Apex, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, Uncanny), Miller also gained recognition in print with “Calved”, originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction and reprinted in multiple ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies.
I’m drawn to Miller’s fiction for several reasons that tie together. Foremost are his characters: strong and unique voices that reflect points of views not frequently explored in genre fiction. Even though these characters may often be very different from myself – with conditions or experiences I’ve never faced – Miller excels at making them universally relatable. His themes focus on the strengths and weaknesses of their basic humanity. Beautiful mixtures of fragility and fortitude, Miller’s characters compel reader empathy and emotion, even if the character’s specific situation is personally unfamiliar to the reader. This character-driven realism gives Miller’s insightful explorations a mainstream, literary tone. Yet, Miller’s stories are firmly in the genre camp. It is this deft balance between literary realism and the uncanny or speculation of SciFi/Fantasy/Horror that I enjoy so much.
The announcement of Miller’s debut novel, The Art of Starving, therefore made me tremendously excited. But it also made me a little nervous. For one, it was being marketed as a young adult novel under the HarperTeen imprint. This is not my favorite field, and most of the works I’ve enjoyed in it were no different from ‘adult’ novels except for their protagonist’s age. I feared Miller would be losing a large potential audience or would be simplifying his writing. Secondly, this was new publication territory for Miller. Many writers are brilliant in short form, but never really develop equivalent abilities at novel length.
It took me a bit of time and consideration to get into The Art of Starving, to really see what Miller was developing and how he chose to do that within the novel form. But in the end I am blown away, impressed anew with his skill at writing and conveying emotion, and eager to see where he chooses to go next with a novel.
Relentless and raw, The Art of Starving pulls no punches with potentially triggering subject matters of mental health, sexuality, and eating disorders. Based on aspects of Miller’s own past, the novel is by no means exploitative or irresponsible in dealing with these difficult issues. Miller deals with them openly and honestly because of their importance and seriousness.
The point-of-view protagonist of the novel is Matt, a gay teen grappling with forces both internal and external. Bullied, he feels outcast from his peers, close only to his hard-working mother and his sister Maya, the latter who has left home suddenly for reasons their mother won’t explain. At conflict with his identity, Matt develops an eating disorder, starving himself to attain a perceived clarity of mind and spirit that can help him discover what caused Maya to leave. Matt’s investigation slowly brings him into unlikely friendship and attraction to one of those who bullied him, Tariq. Meanwhile, the starvation takes its toll on Matt’s body, but also starts providing him with strange and uncontrollable supernatural abilities.
As usual, Miller’s writing is superb and evocative. His characters are nuanced and deep, from the main characters of Matt and Tariq to secondary characters like Matt’s mother and sister. Both of Matt’s relationships, with Tariq and with his mother, are perfectly rendered mixtures of open love and selfish secrets. They are defined by their vulnerability and their power, the strengths and weaknesses of each individual. I haven’t remotely faced the specific pressures that Matt feels in this novel. But I have had relationships like those here. I have experienced that imperfect human love, an uncertainty about some aspect of my identity, a wish to be different, a wish to be more.
With all of the poignant themes in The Art of Starving, it might give the impression of being a downer of a book, of becoming mired in depictions of negative mental health. Despite all of its seriousness, the novel also manages to have a fair amount of humor, joy, and hope. Matt’s voice is witty, and Miller writes him in such a way that laughter can even happen in the darkest of moments. This works only because throughout it Matt remains ultimately driven and hopeful, looking toward reconnecting with his sister Maya. Additionally, for all the adversity Matt faces from himself and from others, he experiences connection and joy through his relationship with Tariq, and his mother is a constant source of love and support. Though internally lost, Matt is never really alone, and that keeps the novel from becoming oppressively dour.
Most all reviews I have seen of The Art of Starving recognize the above points. The biggest critiques fall into two categories around the inclusion of genre elements: 1) all the supernatural stuff is unnecessary, and 2) writing about super powers coming from starvation may glamorize an eating disorder. Ultimately, I disagree with these criticisms.
Some readers seemed to have expected this to be a purely literary, conventional story and disliked it simply for including something fantastic and ‘weird’. But assuming Skiffy & Fanty readers do appreciate genre, it is a fair question to ask whether supernatural elements are essential to The Art of Starvation. At first I actually did think that there was no need for Matt to develop supernatural abilities through his self-starvation. Indeed, the plot of the novel could have succeeded without any genre elements included at all. But it would not have had the same impact on me as a reader.
Whether Matt really got supernatural abilities through starvation or whether he just perceived these through imagination and physical damage is irrelevant. Matt believes he is developing these abilities and he dearly wants them to continue. He is using these abilities as tools in his investigation of what happened to his sister and insights into the real feelings of his mother and of Tariq. His eating disorder is not merely a reaction to perceptions of his body or his mental state; it is a valuable tool, a suffering art for tangible powers.
I cannot fully understand how someone can develop an eating disorder; I have never experienced that drive or need. It can even be hard for me to empathize with because it is so foreign. After reading this I realized that Miller’s inclusion of supernatural powers gave me a genre-based analogy/allegory to grab onto that permitted me to actually empathize, to ‘get’ the destructive powers that an eating disorder could have over someone, even though I never experienced it. Imagine if something like starvation made me feel like I had super powers. How tempting would it be to give in? How willing would I be to sacrifice my body’s health for power, for the ability to find someone dear to me who had been lost, to clarify relationships with those I love?
I find it obvious that Miller is not glamorizing an eating disorder as something to give supernatural abilities, and I find it unlikely that anyone reading this would emulate Matt solely because of this genre element as opposed to an already pre-existing drive built from conventional reasons. No book is for everyone, and The Art of Starving of course could be damaging in triggers for some. Its relevance could also be a positive factor for some who have had similar experiences. Individuals are after all unique. Despite our uniqueness, Miller has also made this novel resonate with a broad audience, tackling issues from misogyny, gender roles, homosexuality, to eating disorders in a way that conveys the human emotions behind these issues, which we all share.
The Art of Starving is now a nominee for a Nebula Award, and it also appeared on NPR’s Best of 2017 list. Miller’s next novel, Blackfish City, comes out in mid-April. I have nothing but pure excitement for this one now!