by Melissa Unger
Roundfire Books, July 25 2014
150 pages | Amazon
This novel begins with a dedication encouraging people who are unique not to bow to the norm, and I believe that’s perhaps the theme that will resonate with readers who can take it on faith that the protagonist learns to live without eating. How many of us have unusual traits and abilities that we don’t have a way to talk about to a world that doesn’t understand it? Even people who are hypothyroid with ancestors who lived through famines and, have dieted their metabolisms away, — or meditative breatharians — need a voice. And yes, I believe such people exist. This book is that voice, though for most readers, the food focus will be a metaphor. It will resonate with them for another quirk that makes them stand out, or would, if they talked about it. Are we not all weird in some way that we can’t explain, on the edge of screwed up and superhuman? Are we two things at once and nothing like our parents expected us to be, not easily fitting into all society’s categories, not happy with the rules of normalcy?The book includes a quote: “Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light,” — Groucho Marx. This spiritualizing of brokenness opens up the sense of inspiring possibilities that Gag delivers.
Peter Howland became disgusted by eggs when he was 22, and simply stopped eating. I can understand. A vegetarian from age 8, I turned vegan for a long time as an adolescent when I thought too hard about an egg, though in my case, it was not the grossness of it as it was in the book. In fact, I went weeks at a time without eating anything at that age.
However, he continues drinking various liquids, which is maybe enough for him to survive 15 years before the time of the narrative, though he doesn’t lose weight or become malnourished. He is supported as an adult by his wealthy parents, which is a behavior many people might wish to keep secret. That isolation is epitomized by his “diet.” He is a bohemian dabbler in writing whose dating falls apart when the ladies want him to take them to dinner. As a woman who rarely ate on the same day as a date, I can identify with how it can be awkward.
He can’t take it anymore, and eventually, he tries to move his life forward by borrowing money from his mother to leave Brooklyn and go stay in Paris, hoping to begin eating again. I wasn’t quite sure why, as the inciting incident seemed a little vague to me, his reasoning unclear. The characters he becomes involved with are even more paradoxical than he is.
What happens next is surprising and brilliantly macabre. We can care about these believable characters doing arguably unreal, and definitely symbolic, acts. The story pounds into their deepest recesses. We ache to get to know them better and are rewarded layers of intimacy as we go. Can the characters themselves stand their own vulnerability and face the truth about each other? It made me cry. It’s a story that will stay with me.
Written in accessible prose in this spare narrative, no words wasted: the word choices don’t call attention to themselves, but are simple and tight, which is good for mainstream fiction, if not quite so much for Literary. “Peter felt a burst of adrenaline. He suddenly understood why some people were so power hungry. For the first time in his life, he felt in complete control, he held all the cards. It was a complete rush.” It doesn’t have beautiful, poetic language that keeps me in a heightened state like some of my favorite books do, but the extremity of some of the characters’ quirks and revelations do create the sense of the marvelous, even though they’re grotesque. The bizarreness that arises out of trauma is treated with respect, yet some of the appeal is naturally sensationalist. I wished for more depth with the mother, as she comes across as a one-dimensional and predictable, as does their relationship which is based on him asking for help.
“Nothing’s wrong. Can’t I call just to say hi?”
“Don’t start, Mom. Can I just have Dr. Gorgon’s number? I want him to look at me.”
“Oh, my God, Peter, not again! Does it burn when you pee?”
“Jesus Christ, Mom, can I please just have his number?”
If we felt more sympathy for her, and also if he felt some remorse about taking her money without really caring about her, this book would have much more depth to me. Not caring is a flaw of his, but it’s not addressed in the ending. It all happens because of her, but she’s just a convenience to the author as well as the protagonist.
The story came to the author in a state of inspiration; she hadn’t considered being a novelist. However, she’s no naive stranger to the world of imagination, having worked with music and video production for Ralph Zinman’s music and video, and feature films featuring the names De Niro, Redford, Disney, Tribeca,and Scorsese, and assisting Daniel Day Lewis as well as De Niro before taking managerial jobs for a media company, a gallery and event production. She founded Seymour Projects to help people balance technology with creativity, and she is a consultant to creative organizations.
When this book is published, it should create a stir. The tone is masterful, in a style I would label New Wave Fabulism focusing on the stories they tell themselves and others, and how the imagination works to cover and uncover the layers of identity pressed inside us, coming out in deviantly miraculous ways.