Non-Eater

Patricia Craig

  • Life-Size by Jenefer Shute
    Secker, 232 pp, £7.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 436 47278 3
  • Daughters of the House by Michèle Roberts
    Virago, 172 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 1 85381 550 0

Jenefer Shute’s Life-Size comes garnished with a quote from Fay Weldon, in which enthusiasm has got the better of taste: ‘Terrific! I devoured it at a sitting.’ ‘Devour’ is not a word one would choose to apply to a novel about the suppression of appetites, however jocularly. This book is full of rage and disgust. ‘They say I’m sick, but what about them, all of them, who think nothing of chewing on a carcass, sinking their teeth into muscle and gristle and blood?’ Thus muses the first-person narrator of Life-Size, five foot two inches, weighing less than seventy pounds; Josie, a graduate student in economics, is far advanced along the line of self-starvation. Anorexia nervosa has her in its grip. She has gone far beyond temperance – the observation quoted above needn’t seem all that askew if you take it as a prescription for vegetarianism, not near-abstinence – into some ferocious realm of self-denial. Finally her flatmate has contacted her parents and Josie is now installed in hospital, where she battles to maintain the lowest possible weight, to this end subjecting her breakfast, lunch and dinner trays to uncompromising scrutiny. All right, faced with a plateful of corpses, embryos and fluid from mammary glands, who wouldn’t baulk? But there’s more to this recoil of Josie’s than just calling things by their proper names.

There’s more to it, too, than a fear of flab. Josie reacts to food as an ascetic – St Thomas Aquinas, let us say – might react to any assault on his chastity: by lashing out. ‘With a convulsive heave of my knees, I sent the tray crashing to the floor.’ The analogy isn’t arbitrary: the two things, eating and sex, are continuously equated. Josie can make an erotic substance of peanut butter – ‘imagine eating it lasciviously with a spoon’ – and revulsion follows. Sensuality is as alien to her as moderation. Her neurosis disallows insertions of any kind. ‘Someone always trying to force something into you, make you swallow something, pump you full of it.’ The more you take in, the more you get taken in, as far as she is concerned. The first, and worst, offender is in the home: ‘Out of sheer spite, my mother was trying to make me eat three times a day.’

This is where it starts: with an overweight mother, an ineffectual father, intimations of incest ... But wait a minute, Josie’s imaginings may be no more than that: imaginings. Her brain isn’t working too well, they tell her in the hospital, she is a starving organism and her brain is starving too. She knows better: she is closer to pure, elemental consciousness than ever before. It’s the pursuit of a kind of truth that has led her to put such effort into paring herself down to the bone – as in the line from a poem by John Hewitt: ‘A tree is truer for its being bare.’ However, when it comes to her ‘recalling’ a rape by a motorcycle gang, even Josie concedes that it may have all been in her head: ‘A common fantasy among young women, so I’m told.’ What did happen may have been more commonplace, if none the less invidious – a slender schoolfriend to emulate, a Barbie doll displaying all its ersatz perfection, the mania for calorie-counting and its coy manifestations: ‘Is it time to banish that untimely bulge?’ What all this adds up to is irresistible advice to cut down, in order to cut a dash. You can’t be gorgeous if you gorge: it’s as simple as that.

This is a novel about going to extremes, which leaves no aspect of fasting unnoted, or unconnected to its central image, that of Anorexia herself. What’s behind the stasis achieved by a mental patient such as Josie is a mishmash of credos and susceptibilities – with glamour, psychosis, feminism, social protest and so forth all playing a part. Josie is, in one sense, making a stand against the lure of gluttony, to which she herself had fallen victim. There are orgies of stuffing described in this book: ‘three doughnuts, a glass of milk, a slice of pizza, most of a package of chocolate chip cookies, a bag of Doritos, a glass of orange juice, an English muffin with butter and jam ...’ So the shameful litany continues. Force-feeding isn’t in it. Neither is priapism: ‘Perhaps a similar hunger drives men in search of sex – the difference being that my frenzy led me to seek something to cram into myself, while they crave something into which to cram themselves.’

But Josie sees in her present condition a triumph of the will – the will to shape one’s life, and one’s flesh, in the most radical way. ‘I was an artist: my medium myself, my materials air and bone and will.’ Vanity hardly comes into an enterprise as bleak as this. It is more a question of purity, purity of outlook. We might think of Sylvia Plath’s defiant ‘I am too pure for you or anyone’. Josie’s seduction, too – described in the novel – recalls the seduction of Esther Greenwood in Plath’s The Bell Jar, with both young women assailed by exorbitant bleeding: a very unusual effect. (Among the benefits of anorexia is amenorrhea, in Josie’s very distorted view.) You are reminded, also, of George Steiner’s comment on Plath’s appropriation of the Holocaust – ‘a subtle larceny’ – when Josie, in Life-Size, makes no distinction between voluntary and involuntary starvation. Fasting, for whatever purpose, or for no purpose at all, strikes a chord with her, as the deadly images jostle for prominence. The Irish hunger-strikers, the Suffragettes, Ethiopia, Belsen, the slimming industry: all these are somehow jammed together to present a standard of achievement to Josie’s defective vision. The mortifications of the early female saints – ‘women pale and thin with fasting’ – are closer in spirit to the practices of the anorexic, with their ill-founded assumptions about consequent grace. But whatever way you look at it, Life-Size is a striking first novel, accomplished, convincing, full of a kind of lucid dementia, and missing nothing of consequence in its investigation of the whole starvation syndrome.

Josie’s aberration begins in adolescence, notoriously a time of flagrant maladjustment. Some people are affected worse than others – they stop eating, turn morose and awkward, or go in for wild infatuations. Worst and most tiresome are those who see things. Michèle Roberts’s novel, Daughters of the House, has a pair of juvenile visionaries as its central characters. Thérèse and Léonie are cousins – one French, one half-English – who spend their summers together at the family mansion in Normandy. The time is the early Fifties, or thereabouts. The war is not long over, and a miasma of balefulness is lingering in its wake. Terrible things have happened in the district, which the girls are not supposed to know about. Desecrated shrines, massacres in the woods, dark doings in the cellar ... Small wonder that Thérèse’s mother Antoinette succumbs to cancer, that Léonie takes up with an unpolished peasant addicted to killing kittens, or that first one girl and then the other comes flying home to report a strange experience in the woods. Half-English Léonie enjoys the first sighting of a heavenly lady (a pretty swarthy lady, in this instance), but it isn’t long before Léonie’s apparition is appropriated by Thérèse and kitted out with orthodox, Lourdes-type accoutrements. (It isn’t Bernadette, though, who’s Thérèse’s model, but her actual namesake, St Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower.)

It is hard to disentangle fact from fancy in this overwrought novel, which proceeds in short fraught sentences. Is it, for example, Thérèse’s fancy that a bishop, no less, pronounces over her all-but haloed head: ‘That little girl’s no fake. I don’t know when I’ve seen anything so heavenly as that gesture of welcome she made, that smile that she mirrored.’? We are left in the dark about this and other matters. Michèle Roberts, it seems, is one of those writers who equate obscurity with depth. I suppose the point of the novel is that each of these girls is out to steal as much as she can from the other, whether in the line of mystical experiences, house and home, boyfriend, parents, or identity itself. These subtle larcenies come with a decidedly gothic colouring – as, indeed, does the rest of the story, Nazism, numinousness, pubescence and all.

What bounded the house was skin. A wall of gristle a soldier could tear open with his bare hands. Antoinette laughed. She was buried in the cellar under a heap of sand.

Not only Antoinette (in Léonie’s fevered imaginings), but the novel itself gives the impression of something buried in the cellar.