Apr 7 2020

Short Story Review: “Hunger” by Susan Neville

book spines

I don’t want to go too much into summary and specifics of plot when discussing Susan Neville’s short story “Hunger,” (Missouri Review, Winter 2017). The title speaks enough for itself in that regard.

Instead I will note some moments and lines that stood out and elaborate on why they did for me.

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At one point the unnamed narrator tells readers:

Maybe it was choice itself I wanted to rid myself of. Left or right? This way or that? Day in and day out, year after year, I drive in my little rat’s maze. Grocery store. Drugstore. Work. Home. But in what order? And what if I wanted to break out of that maze, as I sometimes do? (p. 31)

Readers learn only that this narrator lacks a sense of freedom, but not why. This idea that she’s stuck in a rat’s maze, either entrapped in vacuity or restrained by oppressive hegemony—she never tells readers, but it really stood out when I read it.

And this mention of the maze has both reminded me of what New Pop Lit editor Karl Wenclas has been getting at as a literary theorist and editor as well as led me to suspect that Neville is also trying to get at something similar as a writer (through the character of her narrator in this story): the need to break out of the maze––to shatter the cookie-cutter, foregone conclusions found in too many short stories these days.

Neville’s story has what Wenclas hints at in his phrasing of “new, different angles,” and how “in truth there are more than two sides to every story.” And Neville’s story has many sides, though I haven’t apprehended all of them fully (even after at least three enthusiastic readings). But she seems to have created something that Wenclas, myself, and others are looking for as readers, what Wenclas has formulated as “a faster, vastly more readable and exciting short story….” a “prototype so different from the standard.”

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At one point, Neville’s narrator tells readers:

One of the pleasures of life is that there is always so much to think about and attempt to understand. (p. 32)

This to me is a key to understanding why the narrator is almost overwhelmed by the abundance of detail she’s trying to share and the difficulty in expressing why she needs to share that abundance to her readers. They aren’t just readers, but readers-as-characters participating in the story by their close listening. But even an abundance of something Good can be overwhelming and requiring adjustment (Plato, Republic VII, 518) or worse, so poisonous as to necessitate countermeasures (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II, ii; II, vii; III, vii; IV, v).

Yet, at the end of the day, the reader doesn’t know beyond a reasonable doubt if Neville’s narrator’s thinking about life qualifies as excessive and overly abundant. (But there may be clues that I as a reader have as of yet unknowingly passed over.)

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The narrator of “Hunger” informs readers that:

I must have complete quiet in the car. I do not listen to music. I listen to my thoughts. (p. 33)

And this line reminded me of something I’d come across recently when rereading Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a novel whose narrator tells readers:

Sometimes I’ll turn on the radio and listen to a talk program from Boston or New York. I can’t stand recorded music if I’ve been drinking a good deal.

(Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five, (New York: Dell, 1969; 1971) I, 7.)

If one doesn’t listen to music when in the car for long periods of time, as Neville’s (seemingly sober) narrator appears to be doing—does that act of debarring oneself from art indicate excessive thinking? Vonnegut’s narrator seems to imply that excessive drinking leads to excessive thinking. One wants to say to the main character of “Hunger,” “If only she’d listened to music, then perhaps she wouldn’t feel so trapped in that maze she thinks she’s in.” But that may not be the case for this hungry character.

This notion of too much thinking and not enough music also reminds me of a passage from Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog (1922):

But they––incredible! incredible!––they never replied, behaved as if I were not there. Dogs who make no reply to the greeting of other dogs are guilty of an offense against good manners which the humblest dog would never pardon any more than the greatest. Perhaps they were not dogs at all? But how should they not be dogs? Could I not actually hear on listening more closely the subdued cries with which they encouraged each other, drew each other’s attention to difficulties, warned each other against errors; could I not see the last and youngest dog, to whom most of those cries were addressed, often stealing a glance at me as if he would have dearly wished to reply, but refrained because it was not allowed? But why should it not be allowed, why should the very thing which our laws unconditionally command not be allowed in this one case? I became indignant at the thought and almost forgot the music. Those dogs were violating the law. Great magicians they might be, but the law was valid for them too, I knew that quite well though I was a child. And having recognized that, I now noticed something else. They had good grounds for remaining silent, that is, assuming that they remained silent from a sense of shame.

(Franz Kafka, “Forschungen eins Hundes” (“Investigations of a Dog”) (c. 1922). trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1971) 283.)

Notice that the dogs don’t just howl harmoniously; they make music so complex it can be forgotten.

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Finally, there’s the line by Neville from the daughter to her mother, the narrator:

I felt like I was being buried alive, she [the daughter] says and then asks, Where are you? I’m driving, I say, and there’s an uncanny valley sort of blip in her face as she continues doing whatever she was doing when I accidentally called her. (p. 33)

Yes, the daughter could literally mean, “Where are you, mother?” But sometimes asking “Where are you?” is a way of asking “What are you thinking about just now?” Readers don’t know where the mother-narrator is, or is going, for she never mentions a destination. The mechanic she visits functions only to keep her going, but she never intends to stop. It seems the means of her getting there have overcome the goal itself.

But is she being chased? Yes, some mazes have no exits, but I detect no monsters in this story. There is no evidence in the text that the mother-narrator is being chased by a Minotaur.