SEATTLE WRITER Elissa Washuta's Starvation Mode, out now from Future Tense Books imprint Instant Future, is, at the outset, a meditation on food: food as the fundamental building block of body, self, and relationship to the world. What sets this keen memoir apart is its discontent with the usual currency of narratives of its sort: revelations about puberty, gender, and sexual relationships that it wryly explores in the first half, guided by an amusing and discerning narrator.
The book opens with a description of foodstuffs that captures our culture's culinary abundance. The sumptuous description of what our narrator has "fisted" into her "fridge's bowels" inspires the same sort of throat-clenching that the narrator feels: This is how one might starve surrounded by perfectly good food. Organized into sections or "rules," like a diet manual, the narrative traces a shifting and anxious relationship with eating. Rules and conclusions abound, and some can seem too typical of food-issue memoirs. And yet, in the slippery quality of these insights, we sense something bigger is coming. Washuta does not deal in easily digestible revelations.
The memoir makes an exciting and radical shift about midway through, and we discover this story is not simply about culinary control and appetite, but about narrative control, consumption, and appetite for meaning. This is about a young woman crafting her story in a culture that has as narrow an idea of narrative perfection as a teen magazine does of physical perfection. "I fear that you might come at me with your expectations for what you want my narrator to feel. I fear that you will think my heart has misbehaved," she says. Washuta's narrative inventively turns back on itself, re-examining its previous revelations and meanings. Messy confessions abound, but the unyoking from the previous rules is delicious.
In the end, Starvation Mode's peculiar structure asks us to closely examine what we hunger for, consume, and how we create and ingest meaning. Washuta takes important risks, ones which I wonder whether the broader readership has an appetite for, but perhaps should cultivate.