Slow as usual to catch up with the spirit of the times, I still haven’t quite gotten the hang of Twitter. I’m a seasoned haikuist but 140 characters is a challenge – I like spelling words out! – and I feel driven to read ALL of the tweets, so I follow few. But if you too are skeptical of this particular form of social media, let me assure you that it’s worth joining just to follow Margaret Atwood. I’ve always been a reader who imagines my favorite authors as books, not people, so I am continually astonished to see this idol of mine engaging warmly and drolly with numerous followers, boosting links to charities and political causes, and making use of Lazyweb (most recently to instigate the creation of an emoticon for a drunk, sex-starved fruit fly*). Besides, followers got to be the first to know of a new piece of short fiction available for e-reading: “I’m Starved for You.” You can read a sample at Byliner.com.
The title indicates right away that this is going to be a story of some kind of hunger. The first form this hunger takes in the narrative is erotic yearning: Stan (not his real name) finds a note from Jasmine to Max – two people he assumes he has never met, though they live in close proximity to him. The note proclaims Jasmine’s lust to see Max again, which she couches in terms of hunger (“I’m starved for you”) and signs with the imprint of her mouth via a purply lipsticked kiss. These signs of Jasmine’s sexual hunger throw Stan into a tailspin, and he finds himself obsessing for her appetite, which he imagines as both indiscriminate and personal (surely, she could direct that wanton lust toward him; surely she would perform that wanton lust exclusively for him!). At first, that lipstick kiss is the focus of his desire: he develops an appetite for it almost as for food. The lipstick has a faintly fruity, candy-like scent, and the color of it – which he takes some pains to name – represents a form of oral delectation to him as well. “Fuchsia,” he says to himself, “It has a moist, luscious feel to it.” (Inevitably, this line reminded me of a favorite poem of mine: “The Word Plum,” in which Helen Chasin describes the “deliciousness” of the word plum, the “pout and push, luxury of / self-love. . . / full in the mouth and falling / like fruit.”) In the short story as in the poem, contemplating the mouth itself is a sort of oral pleasure, food for the sexually hungry soul.
This is a Margaret Atwood story, so it’s not giving too much away to say that Stan’s obsession plays out against the backdrop of a dystopian world driven to extremes by consumption and consumerism; his urgent appetite is contrasted with a literally starving nation. In this not-too-distant projected future, unemployment is nearly 50% and food, among other basic needs, is scarce. The main characters of the story have traded some of their basic freedoms to meet these basic needs, and live in a highly controlled community replete with mostly comfortable homes and mostly delicious food. (There is a wonderful section about the care and raising of chickens within this sheltered community, and a brief allusion to the notorious ChickieNobs from Oryx and Crake.) But even in this closed system of plenty (or at least enough), the physically nourished human bodies hunger for something more, something beyond their immediate care and maintenance – a lipsticked kiss and its promise of sexual plenty, for example; the pleasure of a secret; the illusion of control. These hungers drive the characters to extremes just as surely as physical hunger could – in fact, it might be said that they are consumed by their need.
I intend this blurb to be a appetizer, not a full-on analysis or review. You are encouraged to read for yourself!
*Which I will footnote in the appropriate MLA style, now that there is one!
Atwood, Margaret (MargaretAtwood). “OK, T-pals: your challenge: Emoticon for sex-deprived drunken male fruit fly. C’mon! You can do it!” 15 March 2012, 9:27.pm. Tweet.