The Art of Starving

Sam J. Miller
  • Review
By – July 5, 2018

Sam J. Miller uses the first per­son and descrip­tive writ­ing to pull the read­er into the life of teenaged Matt, an angst-filled nail-biter deny­ing him­self food — while also hun­gry for love and a friend. Matt is on the trail of a crime he is try­ing to solve. Starv­ing him­self height­ens his sense of smell, hear­ing, and dan­ger. The read­er won­ders if this tac­tic will real­ly help Matt solve the crime and his oth­er prob­lems, but nei­ther Matt nor the read­er are even sure what the crime real­ly is.

Each chap­ter is sim­i­lar­ly struc­tured, start­ing with rules about not eat­ing, and the num­ber of calo­ries Matt has con­sumed that day. Some­times it is about 1,000 — about half of a nor­mal diet, and quite harm­ful. That small fact cre­ates a sense of dan­ger for the read­er. There are also days of zero calo­ries. One slow­ly sur­mis­es that Matt is a neglect­ed teen with a miss­ing father and sis­ter, though his kitchen is full of food. By the book’s mid­point, Matt is slow­ly killing him­self in exchange for hoped-for super­pow­ers. Each cri­sis is a cliffhang­er: Will Matt fig­ure things out? Will he get bet­ter? Will he find friend­ship? Will he ever feel com­fort­able with himself?

The nov­el doesn’t shy away from con­tro­ver­sy and prob­lems. It is full of teens curs­ing, smok­ing, run­ning away, and explor­ing their sex­u­al­i­ty and sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tions. There is also homo­pho­bia and bul­ly­ing. In terms of Jew­ish con­tent, Matt is Jew­ish but not obser­vant. The text presents vex­ing jux­ta­po­si­tions: the com­plex char­ac­ters’ con­nec­tion to their reli­gion is light, as they rel­ish eat­ing bacon and pork lo mein. Matt’s miss­ing father is a Jew­ish Bud­dhist who works on a lob­ster boat, and his moth­er works in a slaugh­ter­house that kills pigs. She goes to syn­a­gogue to get drunk. Matt’s friend Tariq is a wealthy Arab whose fam­i­ly sell[s] Christ­mas trees to infi­dels.” Matt and his fam­i­ly do not seem to have any real con­nec­tion to a Jew­ish community.

The stronger issue is Matt’s fit­ting in, with his Jew­ish­ness act­ing as a nod to his out­sider sta­tus. The nov­el explores the issue of kids dis­ap­point­ing their par­ents, par­ents dis­ap­point­ing their kids, and the dynam­ics of sib­ling rela­tion­ships. Matt’s moth­er is described as a ter­ri­fy­ing force of nature who’s also frag­ile. The read­er help­less­ly fol­lows Matt’s jour­ney, won­der­ing if he could solve his prob­lems by talk­ing about them. Is his absent father the issue, or does his absence allow Matt to break out of the mas­culin­i­ty prison”? His voice is mature at times, but he is also alone as he describes his con­trol issues. Read­ers will stay with the tale, as ques­tions remain until the very end.

Rec­om­mend­ed for ages 14 to 18.

Discussion Questions