Sunday, 29 July 2018

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Mental Illness in YA Month Review: The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller

The Art of Starving by Sam J. MillerThe Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller (Bought) - Matt hasn’t eaten in days.

His stomach stabs and twists inside, pleading for a meal. But Matt won’t give in. The hunger clears his mind, keeps him sharp—and he needs to be as sharp as possible if he’s going to find out just how Tariq and his band of high school bullies drove his sister, Maya, away.

Matt’s hardworking mom keeps the kitchen crammed with food, but Matt can resist the siren call of casseroles and cookies because he has discovered something: the less he eats the more he seems to have . . . powers. The ability to see things he shouldn’t be able to see. The knack of tuning in to thoughts right out of people’s heads. Maybe even the authority to bend time and space.

So what is lunch, really, compared to the secrets of the universe?

Matt decides to infiltrate Tariq’s life, then use his powers to uncover what happened to Maya. All he needs to do is keep the hunger and longing at bay. No problem. But Matt doesn’t realize there are many kinds of hunger… and he isn’t in control of all of them.

A darkly funny, moving story of body image, addiction, friendship, and love, Sam J. Miller’s debut novel will resonate with any reader who’s ever craved the power that comes with self-acceptance.
From Goodreads.

Trigger Warning: This book features suicidal ideation, self-harm and homophobia.

The Art of Starving by Sam J. Miller is one of the many books recommended to me for Mental Illness in YA Month, and it's one I absolutely couldn't not read. It's one of very few books that feature a male protagonist with an eating disorder. And while I can say absolutely without a doubt that this is an amazing, incredible, important book, I can't say that I enjoyed it.

Matt is writing The Art of Starving. The book is what he is writing down, a manual for the reader in unlocking the special powers that come with starving yourself. For that is what Matt has discovered: the less he eats, the more his senses improve. With his sense of smell, his sight, his hearing, and his touch, he can discern where a person has been, what they are thinking, what they are about to do. And he's determined to use these new found abilities to seek revenge for what has happened to his sister, Maya. Five days ago, she ran away from home. This is so unlike Maya, Matt is certain something terrible happened to her to lead to her running away, and he knows it's Tariq that is to blame. Popular, handsome Tariq, who picked her up the night she ran away. Gorgeous Tariq, who Matt has always fancied. Tariq, who is friends with Ott and Bastien, who relentlessly bully Matt for being gay. He knows that Tariq, and maybe even Ott and Bastien, did something to his sister, and he's going to make them pay.

Matt is gay, Jewish, and has an eating disorder. The intersection of Matt being gay and having an eating disorder is really important. Society says boys should look a certain way, and Matt feels he doesn't look that way. He feels ugly and disgusting. He sees other boys - boys who are hot and gorgeous, buff and built - and he not only desperately wants to look like them, he also desires them. It's the comparison merging with desire that leads to Matt starving himself. 'I choose not to eat because I am an enormous fat greasy disgusting creature that no one will ever feel attracted to.' (p12) He doesn't look like the boys he's attracted to, so why would other boys be attracted to him? And having those same boys bully him... well, it kind of vindicates what he's thinking. When looking up the novel when it was recommended to me, I came across Miller's post Every Handsome Boy Made Me Sick to My Stomach on Epic Reads, which I highly recommend reading. Miller's own experience of being gay and having an eating disorder really informed Matt's story, and there's a quote from the article I want to share with you:
"When I was a teenager, every handsome boy I saw made me sick to my stomach.

And here’s the thing: they still do. Not as bad, and not as often. But sometimes. Because no matter how far I’ve come, no matter how awesome I know I am, now – no matter how happy I am to be gay – I still have to live in this world that floods me with images of beautiful muscular athletic handsome men. I still have to live in a gay community that’s obsessed with only one kind of hotness (white twenty-something jocks, mostly). I’ve never really stopped looking at myself in every mirror or store window I walk past, and going, ahhhh, that’s not great."
This really gives you an insight into how Matt thinks; how he sees himself, how he sees other guys. But what is interesting is that Matt, for the majority of the story, until later on when things dawn on him a bit more, doesn't think he has an eating disorder - because he's a boy.
'Thanks to the magic of Afterschool Specials, I know that a disconnect between what I see and what others see is a very banal aspect of eating disorders. Here is the thing--what I have is not an eating disorder. I'm pretty sure boys can't even get eating disorders. Lord knows there aren't any afterschool specials about it.' (p12)
And this is such a huge problem. How often do you hear about boys and men with eating disorders? How many books featuring eating disorders that you've read are about a guy? We simply don't talk about it. And we live in a society of toxic masculinity, where eating disorders are considered a girls' illness, and if boys and men have eating disorders, they're weak. So it just doesn't get talked about.

So with all of this going on in Matt's mind - his desire to look like the boys he's attracted to, the boys who bully him, the toxic masculinity of the world he lives in, and with his sister running away, being scared for her, worried that someone hurt her, and full of rage at the very thought - before his powers even come into play, Matt becomes anorexic as it's the one thing in his life that he has control over.
'This whole thing is not easy. It's a fight, most days. Me vs. Food.Food usually wins. My body, that traitorous thing, makes me cry Uncle. Drags me to the cupboard and makes me frantically scoop peanut butter out of the jar and into my mouth with my finger until I gag on it. But that day, the one that started out with me telling off Ott, I was winning. I was stronger than my hunger.For once, I was in control of something.' (p13)
And it's not just the starving, Matt also self-harms. One thing I've learnt from the books I've read for Mental Illness in YA Month is that "self-harm" doesn't necessarily mean a person is cutting their skin, it's any way a person hurts themselves on purpose. For Matt, it's his nails. He bites his nails, but too much; he bites them too low, and he bites the skin around them, and he's constantly making himself bleed. This can almost seem accidental; biting nails is a habit people can pick up, and do without even realising they're doing it, just automatic. But there is one really gruesome scene where Matt really goes at one of his fingernails until he manages to, deliberately, pull the entire nail from it's bed. It's really upsetting to read.

There are other elements to the story that I thought were really awesome. The Art of Starving is surprisingly feminist. It's not a feminist story, exactly, but there were moments where sexism was mentioned, and how things are unequal between the genders. Sometimes, there's even an effort to even things out within Matt's own narration. For example, each chapter starts with a rule, and Matt talks about the the Art of Starving warrior in the third person. When talking about a hypothetical person, people generally refer to this person as male, "he", but Matt mixes it up and says "she", too. It's such a small thing, but such a small word, but it was so surprising and wonderful to see it. I'm so accustomed to seeing "he", that reading "she" actually made me pause, and think, "Look what he did!"

But of course sexism, the patriarchy and toxic masculinity are all intertwined, so it affects Matt, too, as a gay guy, so I guess it actually makes sense that he would have feminist views. I especially loved this revelation about homophobia:
'I'd never understood the word homophobia before--people who are homophobic are not afraid of gay people, they just hate them! But in that moment it all made sense. Straight men will insult and assault and beat and kill gay men because they are terrified. Because masculinity is the foundation they built their whole worldview on, the set of lies that lets them believe they are inherently better than women, and gay people expose how flimsy and arbitrary the whole thing is.' (p8-9)
This whole quote gives you the kind of view Matt has, and although it's not a main focus, Matt's feminism (though "feminism" is never mentioned) comes to the fore every now and again. Just little moments, but mate, I loved it!

The Art of Starving is also really sex positive. Matt has sex with a guy at one point; it's off page, so we don't see it, but he does speak about, in vague terms.
'You don't want the details. Well, maybe you do, but I don't want to share them.
Here are a few things I don't mind sharing with you.
When he saw my own naked torso, he said, "Oh, baby," and his voice was thick with fear and pity, and he touched my rib cage, and for a split second I saw myself as he did, no longer the fat tub of guts I saw when I looked in the mirror but a tormented tortured body starved to the edge of breaking.
And then he pulled me to him, and his heat blocked out every other concern.
And I was, to use the secret language of gay sex, the bottom.
And it hurt.
And it was wonderful.
And we used protection.'
(p304)
There is also a moment when Matt thinks about and wants to give this guy a blow job, although those words aren't used, nor are any other, because all the words are pretty gross, but the fact that he wants to, desires to, and is on the page is just pretty awesome.
'There is a thing I am obsessed with. It is a thing most boys are obsessed with. It has a lot of slang names, all of them ugly, and a couple of formal ones, none of them pretty. In fact it's funny that something so awesome should have such dumb names. It involves your mouth. Even saying that sounds creepy, but it's the best I can do. By now you will probably have guessed what I'm thinking about because you are smart. That's why I like you. I don't need to spell out every little thing.
Anyway I wanted to do That Thing. Bad. Like, overpoweringly bad. I wanted to seize
[redacted] and do The Thing to him because I wanted it . . . and also to change the subject. Even though my head was ringing with monstrous, stupid, ridiculous questions.
Does sperm count as food? How many calories are in an orgasm? In a spit vs. a swallow?' (p309-310)
Although there are so many things to like about The Art of Starving, for me personally, I didn't enjoy the powers aspect of the story. It was actually quite gross, with the sniffing of people's towels and such. I also don't think it was necessarily important, or added much to the story, except another reason for Matt to starve himself. Except, even if he didn't have the powers, he would be starving himself anyway. At first I wasn't even sure if his powers were real, I thought it was some delusion, and that Matt had another mental illness as well as an eating disorder. But it turned out his powers were actually real. It just didn't interest me, though. I mean, it was clever, the world building, if you like, surrounding his senses, what he could do, what he could work out, the control it gave him, but for whatever reason, I just really didn't enjoy this element of the story. That's not to say it's bad; this is just me and what I didn't like - I'm quite sure other people would really enjoy it.

Also, there were three aspects of the story that I found predictable, two involving Tariq, and the other, the reason behind Maya's disappearance. As I knew these things, it became a little frustrating that it took so long for Matt to work these things out, or discover them. So with him being a little slow on the uptake, and all the experiments with his power, I just didn't really enjoy the book as a whole.

But that doesn't take away from just how important this book is. An #OwnVoices story about a boy with an eating disorder, that looks at the intersection of an eating disorder with being gay. It's so important and so powerful, and just really bloody brilliant. Despite the fact that I didn't enjoy it overall, I would still highly recommend you read The Art of Starving.

Mental Illness in YA Month

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Published: 11th July 2017
Publisher: HarperTeen
Sam J. Miller's Website

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