June 16, 2018
Hugo Reading 2018: The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller
This book is kind of a mixed bag. I think it does several important things. First of all, the main character is a gay male teen with an eating disorder (anorexia), which I understand is rare in YA fiction. Matt is not a likable protagonist, but he's not meant to be: he acknowledges that he's all kinds of effed-up. Side plots includes Matt's being bullied by his classmates, and the stress of coming out. This book is raw, honest, and straightforward, whether it comes to Matt's emotions, his dysfunctional relationship with food, or his hate/love for his boyfriend, Tariq. Taken strictly from a characterization and YA coming-of-age story viewpoint, this book is excellent.
(You knew that was coming, didn't you?)
I mainly read SFF (science fiction and fantasy). This book has been nominated for several SFF awards, and just won the Andre Norton Award (presented at the Nebula Awards Banquet) for best young adult SFF book. Unfortunately, to me the SFF element (Matt's anorexia gives him superpowers) is the weakest part of the book. (Not to mention that it seems a problematic plot element, to say the least. But I'm not gay and have never been anorexic, so I'll defer to the author, who is and has been both. Obviously, he knows whereof he speaks, and that lived experience is a huge part of why Matt's character rings so true.) It didn't take me long to realize that Matt is an unreliable narrator, and to my mind there is a great deal of question as to whether Matt's expanding senses and what seem to be mind-control powers are actually happening, up until the last couple of chapters. So at the end of the book, apparently Matt really does bust the pigs out of the slaughterhouse and lead them on a revenge march through his small oppressive town. Then, after he completes his ED treatment and rejoins his family (and this section is, to my mind, unnecessarily rushed--after the extensive details of how his eating disorder took hold of his mind, we should have gotten to see how he freed himself from it), his powers seem to be dead.
Or are they? In the very last chapter of the book, that suddenly isn't the case--he ends up controlling one of the pigs he set free, and it dawns on him that maybe his "powers" aren't tied to starving himself after all. Which, to this reader, makes the entire thing a cheat, and is a huge disappointment. I would have much preferred leaving out the SFF element altogether, if this is how the book was going to end. I think it would have made the story more honest.
This book is worthy on the one hand, and has much to recommend it, but it is also extremely flawed. Still, the author is worth picking up--he has a deft touch with characterization, and his prose is gorgeous. But this book is not something I'm going to keep around.