(heads up: this review contains mentions of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as well as explicit language)
While I doubt that Milk Fed will win many awards, I sure hope that it wins the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. It 100% deserves to.
“Was it real freedom? Unlikely. But my rituals kept me skinny, and if happiness could be relegated to one thing alone, skinniness, then one might say I was, in a way, happy.”
Milk Fed follows in the steps of novels such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation (or to name a few others: Pizza Girl, Luster, Exciting Times, Severance, Hysteria, The New Me…and no, this is by no means a comprehensive list). As I’ve said before in my review for Luster, these books are a hit or miss for me. And at first I thought that Milk Fed was a definite hit but after the 30% mark the novel became increasingly repetitive, annoyingly self-indulgent, and ludicrously sensationalistic. To me, Milk Fed reads like a less compelling version of You Exist Too Much. Both novels focus on young bisexual women who have a rather toxic relationship with their mother. They both suffer at one point or another from an eating disorder. They are self-destructive and directionless. Their attempts to seek therapeutic help do not go all that well. The narrator of You Exist Too Much does some fucked up things but ultimately I cared for and sympathised with her. It helped that I found her caustic wit to be genuinely funny. Milk Fed is all style and no substance. Perhaps those who can enjoy this kind of turgid prose may be able to find this novel amusing or insightful but it just reminded of all the reasons why I did not like Susan Choi’s My Education.
Also, fyi, I had an eating disorder. However, I would never describe myself as a ‘survivor’ nor do I believe that you can’t write a dark comedy about eating disorders. I like satire and cringe comedy (Succession and Fleabag are favourites of mine) but I am certainly not a fan of narratives that are solely intent on being as garish and gratuitous as possible.
Our narrator, Rachel, is an aimless twenty-something who in the very opening of the novel informs us that “It didn’t matter where I worked: one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it”. Rachel thinks about food 24/7. She obsesses about calories, follows seemingly arbitrary eating rituals, exercises everyday not in order to get stronger or leaner but to burn as many calories as possible. She seems to view her troubling relationship to food and her body as preferable to ‘the alternative’ (not being ‘skinny’). She goes to therapy, “hoping to alleviate the suffering related to both my food issues and my mother, but without having to make any actual life changes in either area”. During one of these sessions her therapist recommends that Rachel should take a “communication detox” from her mother (suggesting at least 90 days of no contact).
“Do you want to be chubby or do you want boys to like you?”
We learn through brief flashbacks and Rachel’s recounting that one of the reasons why developed an eating disorder is her mother. As a child Rachel’s mother would shame her for eating things she believed were ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ and imposed strict diets on Rachel. Rachel began to binge-eat (in secret), which made her gain weight. To ‘make up’ for it Rachel begins to eat less and less, which sees her becoming anorexic (when she confesses to her mother that she thinks she may be anorexic her mother dismiss this by saying something on the lines of her not being ‘skinny enough’ to be truly anorexic). Rachel’s mother is horrible and she gives the mother from You Exist Too Much a run for her money…but, unlike You Exist Too Much, here we only told bad things about Rachel’s mother. Because of Rachel’s ‘detoxing’ from her, she never makes an appearance in the actual story. Her presence certainly haunts Rachel but I wish she had not been portrayed in such a skewed way. Making someone embody only negative traits is a very easy way of making them unlikable or into the ‘bad guy’.
Rachel doesn’t care about her job ( I cannot precisely remember what she does other than it has to do with ‘Hollywood’) nor does she have any friends or hobbies (unless you count obsessing about food as a hobby). She is desperate for validation, which is perhaps why once a week she does stand up comedy for a night show called ‘This Show Sucks’. This thread of her life often felt unexplored and out of place. You could probably cut out the scenes she spends at this show and the story would be much the same (by the end this show’s main purpose seems to be that of a meeting place).
At work she has sort of bonded with an older woman who she sees both as a mother-figure of sorts and as an object of desire. This leads to some predictably gross incestuous fantasies that have a very Freudian feel to them as they exist mainly to indicate Rachel’s state of mind (and they have the added bonus of grossing the reader out). During one of these sexual fantasies, which goes on and on for quite a few pages, Rachel imagines being ‘mothered’ by this older female colleague. Later, when she begins bingeing again, she imagines having sex with this same colleague, only this time she is the one who is in doing the ‘dominating’.
Rachel’s first meets Miriam at the frozen yogurt shop where she usually gets a plain yogurt from (part of her eating routine). Miriam, who works at this shop, insists on giving Rachel a bigger portion of yogurt. Because of this Rachel is annoyed by Miriam. Added to that is Rachel repulsion towards Miriam’s body (she describes Miriam as being “medically obese”). However, Miriam’s nonchalance towards food and her body soon catch Rachel’s attention. Her initial repulsion gives way to lust, and the two women seem to ‘bond’ over the fact that they are both Jewish (Miriam however, unlike Rachel who does not seem to practice any Jewish rituals and does not believe in God, is Orthodox).
Miriam invites Rachel to her house and Rachel idealises her family and home-life. They all enjoy eating and cooking food, and their meals together are happy occasions.
Rachel believes that Miriam reciprocates her feelings and the two being a very one-way sexual relationship. Things, of course, do not go as planned. Rachel’s ups and downs with food, her self-hatred, her unresolved mummy issues, they all contribute to her self-destructive behaviour.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the book’s switch of focus (from Rachel’s ED to Rachel feelings for Miriam) if the relationship between Rachel and Miriam had not been wholly superficial. Miriam is reduced to the role of sex object. There are many instances were Rachel, and the readers, could have learnt more of her—what kind of person she is, her feelings towards Rachel, the way she sees herself, her future & desires, etc.—but we do not. What we get instead are many scenes about Rachel wanting to have sex with Miriam, obsessing over Miriam’s body, masturbating while thinking of Miriam or that her colleague, having sex with Miriam…the list goes on. The way Rachel’s thinks about Miriam’s body raised a few red flags and her attraction towards her sometimes verged on fetishising. She doesn’t think of Miriam but merely of Miriam’s body. Many of the metaphors used when the two are having sex or when Rachel is fantasising about her are food related (Rachel describes Miriam’s moles as “chocolate drops”, her tongue as a “fat piece of liver she was king enough to feed me”). She also loves watching her eat and is aroused when Miriam “slurp[s] dumplings”. Miriam’s “rolls of fat” are like “pussies” to Rachel. I don’t know…these descriptions were probably meant to be funny and weird but they mostly struck me as affected and cheap.
Most of the sex scenes in this novel were awful. They tried hard to be gritty and real but ended being the opposite: when watching a film with Audrey Hepburn Rachel imagines Audrey’s “concave thighs” and sticking her “mouth in her little pussy”; when she is holding Miriam’s hand she views this as an act of sexual intercourse, her finger is a “a cock, a penetrating object”; some of her fantasies included phrases such as “I activated Frankencock” or “It was like nipples were two clits”; when she is having sex with Miriam she smells “the faintest waft of shit coming up from underneath her. It smelled like fertile heaven: peat moss, soil, sod, loam”. Later in the novel she brags about fingering a guy to that older female colleague in order to impress her, feeling remorse in doing so. She never confronts her mother or this colleague, nor does she feel challenged or inspired by her relationship with Miriam. Yes, the more time she spends with Miriam, the less she restricts but throughout the course of the narrative she maintains an obsessive relationship with food and keeps assigning moralistic values to food. I never believed that she cared for Miriam, nor do I think that the relationship helped her somehow. Miriam…she did not strike me as a fully fleshed character. While her body is described in minute detail, her personality remains largely absent. Often, it seemed that Rachel viewed Miriam’s body as representing her ‘essence’. She likes going to the cinema, she’s Jewish, she seems to care for her family…other than that? Who knows!
Because this is a satire most of the characters exist in order to make fun of a certain type of person: we have Rachel’s manager, a woke ‘dude bro’, her older female colleague who is thin, mean, and enjoys belittling other people’s appearance etc., the famous actor who is kind of full of himself, the not very helpful therapist who sees fake deep things…
The narrative also had a thread involving a golem (Rachel creates it out of putty during one of her therapy sessions) and a series of dreams with Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and, to be perfectly honest, these were my favourite elements of Rachel’s story. Sadly however they do not play a huge role in the plot, and most of the narrative is dedicated to Rachel having sex or thinking about her ‘pussy’. Seriously, there were times when this book brought to mind WAP cause there are a few situations in which Rachel and Miriam would benefit from using a mop.
I would not recommend this to those who have been affected by an ED. Although the author initially seemed to have captured many sentiments that resonated with me, Rachel’s ED is ultimately used as a source of humour. There are many grotesque scenes that serve very little purpose other than ridiculing her. And I’m very over books or films that feature characters who offhandedly remark ‘I tried to go bulimic once but like it didn’t work’ (then again, I had bulimia so I am a bit touchy on that particular front).
Anyway, this novel tries to be outrageous and subversive but it succeeds only in being gratuitous. This is the kind of satire that is all bark, no bite. The author’s commentary on modern work culture, eating disorders, contemporary society, religion, the Palestinian-Israel conflict …is lacking.
Also, I find it hard to believe that Rachel, our supposedly shrewd girl, and this famous actor would get Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creature confused.
Nevertheless, just because I found Melissa Broder’s story to be superficial and ultimately unfunny, does not mean that you should not give this novel a try (bear in mind however that this books has some pretty yucky and incest-y content).
Here is a snippet which I did not enjoy but might very well appeal to other types of readers:
“Her hair was the color of cream soda, or papyrus scrolls streaked with night light. Her eyebrows were the color of lions, lazy ones, dozing in sunlight or eating butter at night with their paws by lantern. Her eyes: icebergs for shipwrecking. Lashes: smoke and platinum. Her skin was the Virgin Mary, also very baby. Her nose: adorable, breathing. Upper lip: pink peony. Lower lip: rose. The teeth were trickier, but her inner mouth was easy–Valentine hearts and hell.”
my rating: ★★½