Matt is anorexic, but that’s not what he’d tell you. People with eating disorders have a problem, after all, and what Matt has are powers. High school was hell until he discovered them, realizing that the less he ate, the greater his senses became. But bullying is easier to avoid when you can hear the bully coming from a mile away, and easier to overcome with when you can read the bully’s mind. Before he discovered his powers, Matt’s sister Maya disappeared without a trace and his mom was on the verge of losing her job; but now he can do for them what they’ve always done for him—he can save them.
Sam J. Miller’s debut YA novel, The Art of Starving, is exactly as wounding as its synopsis implies, but twice as profound. Framed as a rule book for aspiring superhumans like Matt, the novel is too tongue-in-cheek and bizarre to veer into the realm of the Morality Tale where so many other YA novels of its ilk reside. Matt is a poor, gay, Jewish teen boy with an eating disorder; the possibilities for tragedy porn and adult sermonizing are basically endless. Instead, Miller has written a bruising and incisive story about a boy at war with himself—with his hunger, with his lust, with the things that tie him to the world. Instead, Miller has made that war only a means to an end, with Matt’s quest to find his sister and to enact vengeance on his bullies front and center. The Art of Starving is a rule book where its rules self-destruct, slowly but surely, in tandem with its narrator.
Matt and his sister are different in many ways—she’s a rad as hell punk rocker, for one, and he’s a loser with no real friends—but the one thing they have in common is their crush on Tariq. Unattainably gorgeous and just rebellious enough, Tariq threw in his lot with Matt’s bullies, Bastien and Ott, ages ago. But he’s sometimes kind to Matt, and had started to hang around Maya just before she left. When Tariq begins to watch Matt more closely, Matt becomes convinced that his relationship with Maya went deeper and more sinister than mere friendship. He almost certainly knows why Maya ran away—that is, if he didn’t have something to do with it himself.
Using his newfound abilities to navigate the corridors of his high school, Matt weaves together the ugliness and banality of small town life into the beginnings of a conspiracy. But the closer he gets to unraveling Tariq’s secrets, the closer he gets to Tariq. The more he discovers about his body, the less he seems to know about himself. Matt’s coming-of-age is anything but passive—he fights to understand the world with the desperation of a caged animal. His story throughout The Art of Starving is shattering for just that reason: we want him to understand as well. And if he stays on this path, he’ll never have the chance.
There are a number of things that differentiate Matt’s story from the other YA eating disorder novels on the market. The fact that he’s male and that he’s gay aren’t small matters, nor are the novel’s constant intersections of poverty, place, and body. But Matt’s powers are the strangest element, not to mention the ones that make the novel tick. The added genre element is fun, of course: it makes his quest for vengeance more urgent, and the reader’s “what-ifs” and “how-coulds” more complicated. But more than anything, Matt’s powers are undeniably, painfully recognizable. In one scene, he watches his classmates at a party and knows with absolute certainty that he’s stronger than them:
“…I felt fantastic, taller than the indoor palm tree, sturdy as the marble columns. I wasn’t slave to my impulses, the way these boys and girls were. I was stronger than my emotions, strong enough to bend and break my body into obedience, strong enough to access powers they could not imagine. I could joke and laugh with them, smile for photographs, but they were not my equals.”
Not everyone struggling with self-harm gains supernatural abilities, but that doesn’t mean Matt’s fantasies of control aren’t grounded in a realistic portrayal of mental health. The idea that self-control makes Matt more powerful than his peers isn’t just a story device, nor is it a delusion of grandeur. It’s a coping mechanism (to put it clinically) and a short-term survival tactic (to put it bluntly). Matt may not have control over anything else, but his body is his alone. That’s what makes it so heartbreaking when he realizes that isn’t quite the case.
Another thing I love about The Art of Starving is all of the culture that Matt is enmeshed in throughout the novel. It’s not trivial that he spends so much of his time reading online articles on Buddhism and the works of Jack Kerouac. Matt would likely warp anything he read into something supporting his new way of life, but tenants like “mind over matter” and “embrace suffering, deny society” are especially easy to cling to when you think you’re on the way to something like transcendence. The philosophies of the Beats and the Buddhists aren’t inherently gendered, but the ways that they’re interpreted and performed often are. A huge and powerful aspect of Matt’s journey is his learning to embrace the “worldly” “feminine” things Enlightened Men so often cast off: family, comfort, relationships, material well-being. Miller never goes out of his way to explain this, but it’s there in the title, in the format, and in the miasma of Matt’s life. It adds to the book’s truth and to its complexity, the two things that make it exceptional.
I anticipate some readers will condemn The Art of Starving as a glorification or enabling of suicide and anorexia. It offers itself, after all, as a guidebook. However, I hope that teens in dire straights will see themselves in the best parts of Matt’s journey as well as the worst. I hope that readers of all ages and identities will read until the end, and will feel empowered to let mind and matter reach an agreement at last. It’s a messy process, but in the case of this novel, it’s very much worth it.
The Art of Starving is available from HarperTeen.
Emily Nordling is a library assistant and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.