Illustration by Alana Salguero
Illustration by Alana Salguero

Roxane Gay’s Hunger is very, very good—the rare memoir that doubles as page-turner. I’m writing this on a flight (Gay’s passages on airplane issues are some of her best: the seatbelt extenders, having to buy two tickets) and the woman across the aisle is reading Bad Feminist. “Book Twins!” she just said happily. This never happens. That Gay has reached so many is testament to her skill with empathetic connection. She writes early in Hunger that her “life is split in two, cleaved not so neatly. There is the before and after. Before I gained weight. After I gained weight. Before I was raped. After I was raped.”

I don’t know how to talk about rape and sexual violence when it comes to my own story. It is easier to say, “something terrible happened.”

Something terrible happened. That something terrible broke me. I wish I could leave it at that, but this is a memoir of my body so I need to tell you what happened to my body.

We are pulled in by the repetition, as we are by Gay’s hesitance. Hunger reaches this most difficult part of its narrative early, after a sequence of short introductory chapters: Twelve-year-old Gay falls in love with a boy. The boy brings her to a cabin where his friends are waiting, and a horrible sexual assault takes place. It remains secret. “All too often, what ‘he said’ matters more, so we just swallow the truth. We swallow it, and more often than not, that truth turns rancid. It spreads through the body like an infection.” One beautifully depicted consequence of this infection: Gay eats, hoping to disguise her body, disappear into armor. “I don’t know how I let things get so out of control, but I do.” She eventually weighs 577 pounds.

Part of Hunger’s intrigue is in the frustrating ramifications of this transformation: small movie theater seats, or needing help getting onto a high stage during an event, or strangers taking items out of Gay’s shopping cart (!). The book is also frequently very funny: “Oftentimes the people who I make uncomfortable by admitting that I don’t love being fat are what I call Lane Bryant fat.” But many of the anecdotes interested me on a deeper level. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of using Gay’s book to write about myself, but was struck by a line in The New York Review of Books: “…I suspect that every woman who reads Hunger will recognize herself in it. For men who read the book, it will be more of a travelogue. Vade mecum.”

Excellent Latin usage, and a great review, but I identified strongly with Hunger. A very partial list:

“I go to the doctor as rarely as possible because when I go, whether for an ingrown toenail or a cold, doctors can only see and diagnose my body.” – I haven’t been to a doctor in ten years.

“When I go to the gym on my own, I always feel like all eyes are on me. I try to pick times when there won’t be many people around, partly to protect myself, partly out of self -loathing.” – I once quit a gym when a well-intentioned man critiqued my squats.

“Before I got on the plane, my best friend offered me a bag of potato chips to eat, but I denied myself that. I told her, ‘people like me don’t get to eat food like that in public,’ and it was one of the truest things I’ve ever said.” – I rarely eat carbohydrates in public.

These resonances aren’t just because I was bullied in high school for my weight, though I was badly bullied (to be hit and choked while one is called fat paradoxically really makes one want a Skor bar). There was constant shame then, but I look back, as Gay does in a moving sequence with childhood photos, and see a perfectly fine-looking teenager. But Hunger unearthed something even deeper in me. Take this remarkable, propulsive sequence:

When I am eating a meal, I have no sense of portion control. I am a completist. If the food is on my plate, I must finish it. If there is food left on the stove, I must finish it. Rarely do I have leftovers. At first, it feels good, savoring each bite, the world falling away. I forget about my stresses, my sadness. All I care about are the flavors in my mouth, the extraordinary pleasure of the act of eating. I start to feel full but I ignore that fullness and then that sense of fullness goes away and all I feel is sick, but still, I eat. When there is nothing left, I no longer feel comfort. What I feel is guilt and uncontrollable self-loathing, and oftentimes, I find something else to eat, to soothe these feelings and, strangely, to punish myself, to make myself feel sicker so that the next time, I might remember how I feel when I overindulge.

I never remember.

Toward the end of college, I gained 60 pounds in nine months. I would order Wawa subs on a touch screen (limited shame with the touch screen!), then head to Baja Fresh for an off-menu item called Burritos Dos Manos, which is what it sounds like. More: I didn’t cut my hair for a year and a half. I rarely brushed my teeth. I wore baggy athletic clothing. I buried the truth of me. Sunken eyes in the bathroom mirror; a shamble in sandals; pain, weird pain. Though I’ve slowly taken most of that weight off in the 14 years since, I did permanent damage. My metabolism, my back, the sides of my stomach are not the same.

There are certain memoirs that are difficult to critically evaluate because they compel us to unearth our own difficulties, and so any discussion becomes necessarily personal. I am a straight white man who grew up six blocks from Donald Trump’s once and future primary residence, so it feels fraught to speak of how aspects of this narrative, though far more intense and unjust than anything I’ve experienced, resonated. But I’ve never connected with a book like I did with Hunger.

The most frequently criticized aspect of Hunger is the repetition, which occurs not only on the line level, but with repurposed paragraphs. I do wish there was less of this, so that the technique could be even more impactful. But mistakes of intention are part of all books. In Giovanni’s Room the framing device kills the tension; there is too much political writing in the third Neapolitan Novel; The Captive sequence in In Search of Lost Time is, just, preposterously long; The Bible has continuity issues. Many reviews of Hunger chose to treat the repetition as a mistake, as in an accident, disqualifying the book as sufficiently “literary” for some. This protective impulse that’s evident in social media sometimes does Gay a disservice—her writing is not always treated as seriously as the story that she’s telling. But she is an effective, unique stylist.

Look again at this sequence, one you’ve already read:

It is easier to say, “something terrible happened.”

Something terrible happened. That something terrible broke me. I wish I could leave it at that, but this is a memoir of my body so I need to tell you what happened to my body.

Rendering the inner state of characters with cadence is one of the challenges of the medium; Gay is depicting the circular nature of trauma through prose. Repetition as blank space is a known craft phenomenon—the way we elide the she saids when we read dialogue without adverbs. Gay’s stylistic flourish is a scrim that allows readers to project. As our eyes glide over what we already know, our brain turns inward; our own stories are superimposed on the text.

In the narrative background of Hunger, Gay drops out of college, leaves Yale for Arizona, comes out to her parents on the phone, and has a sequence of sexually complex relationships. The lack of plotted scene-work when hunger is not the subject is a bit like when a bar plays an interesting-looking movie without the sound on, but marvelous sequences bloom toward the end of the book. She tracks down her rapist: “I googled him when I wrote this book. I don’t know why. Or I do.” There’s a chilling body horror section after Gay breaks her ankle, one that turns unexpectedly humorous. “I marveled at how suddenly someone else’s blood was inside of me. I also enjoyed that the orthopedic surgeon was incredibly attractive, knew it, and had the swagger of a man who is very good at what he does and was very well compensated for that work.” And there are intense moments of introspection, too: “I couldn’t admit this to myself, but there was a pattern of intense emotional masochism, of throwing myself into the most dramatic relationships possible, of needing to be a victim of some kind over, and over, and over. That was something familiar, something I understood.”

When I was in college, just before I gained all that weight, something bad happened, not worth getting into. Or (be honest): something that I don’t want to get into, because I am not as brave as Gay. As I lost control of my inhibitions, a second bad thing happened, on a night when I lost the ability to move my body. I lay somewhere with someone. Some things happened on me. This is the closest I can come to acknowledging them. The unwelcome rasp of her. The incident has been a comet in fixed orbit around my life ever since, forgotten until it resurfaces and occludes all that’s near.

Until I read Hunger, I had never made a connection between the bad things and my weight gain. Isn’t that funny? It seems obvious now. I lost control of myself, so I lost my self-control. Then, shamed, I changed my body into something that reflected my inner state. That year was an enduring mystery of my life. No longer.

It’s an old chestnut that great writing should give us empathy for others. Hunger gave me something rarer: empathy for myself.

Adam Dalva

Adam Dalva is the senior fiction editor of Guernica. He has published with The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, and The Guardian. Adam serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and is the books editor for Words Without Borders. His graphic novel, Olivia Twist, was published by Dark Horse in 2019. He teaches Creative Writing at Rutgers University. He has received fellowships from the Atlantic Center for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. He teaches creative writing at Rutgers University.

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