Chelsea G. Summers
Unnamed Press ($26)
by Eleanor Stern
“People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher. It’s no coincidence, then, that Dorothy Daniels, the food-critic-turned-murderer narrator of A Certain Hunger, labels Fisher her hero in an uncharacteristic moment of straightforward admiration.
For Dorothy, food is lethally inseparable from the usual topics of serious literary inquiry, especially heterosexual love and sex. But when she begins to kill, cook, and consume a string of lovers in increasingly baroque ways, her acts aren’t rooted in metaphor. Food, to Fisher and Daniels alike, is relevant to everything. But it never stands for something else, and to let it would be an insult—unfaithful to the honor of Dorothy’s craft as a critic. Rather, eating deserves consideration in and of itself. As Dorothy narrates from prison, she waxes nostalgic about “cut tomatoes oozing their sun-warmed guts” and “the crackling skin of a roast chicken spitting hot fat into my mouth.” The images are erotic, as Dorothy will happily admit (she calls Italian truffles “a course in erotics for your mouth”). But they don’t coyly suggest sex. They comfortably contain it, and a great deal more besides.
It’s possible that Chelsea G. Summers intended none of this, and that, for all of A Certain Hunger’s wildly descriptive prose about food and eating, she really wanted to employ food as a way to talk about “serious” topics—sex, gender, hating your mom. One does get the sense that the book would like to wring more metaphorical resonance and heartbreak from Daniels’ personal relationships: with her long-dead mother, with the agoraphobic best friend who ends up testifying for the prosecution at her murder trial, and of course with the men she eats. Some of those relationships are plenty interesting, but on the level of characterization, they feel more like obligatory scaffolding (“I once had thought I had loved Giovanni,” Dorothy muses, causing me to scribble “really?” in the margin). Watching Dorothy wrench a swollen tongue out of a dead man’s mouth or taste her way around Rome is simply more of a reason to read this book than any sexual, platonic, or familial power struggle.
Dorothy eats the men she fucks, but she does not transform the liver of an annoying vegan fling into pate because she wants to assert dominance; she mostly does it because she loves pate. When she performs an elaborate kosher slaughter on her longtime lover, a married Jewish butcher, her intentions have nothing to do with ritual purification. If she’s doing it out of a desire to consume and possess the one man who will never wholly give himself to her, that motive is secondary and fairly uninteresting. Watching her puzzle out the “theatrics of butchery,” it becomes clear that she loves to kill and cook and eat because these actions hold a challenging beauty for her. “I should have liked, if only to slice again, to do it again; reverse it and do it again and again. Gone. Here. Gone. Here. Gone,” she explains, relishing the feeling of slitting a throat. Dorothy is first and foremost an artist, albeit one without a very active conscience. Earlier traumas (a bad maternal relationship, rape), the book hints, may be explanations for the exquisite detachment-bordering-on-disassociation that allows Dorothy to kill so calmly. Flashbacks to these scenes certainly display early instances of that disengagement. They are not, however, a convincing basis for revenge here, largely because Dorothy feels so tender towards her victims—and because she seems to view culinary transformation as a kind of gift, a token of love or at least attachment. After the kosher slaughter, she thinks “It was his heritage . . . How could I have killed him otherwise.”
Still, the revenge explanation lingers as a sort of red herring. In a back-cover blurb, Jude Ellison S. Doyle asserts that the book has an “unassailable core of female rage” and that Dorothy is “the monster I didn’t know I wanted.” Such readings situate the book in a certain tradition of male-tears-mug feminism, and it’s a worldview that Summers slyly deflates early in the novel. A Certain Hunger, for all its archetypal motifs of murder and cannibalism, takes place in the twenty-first century, and our contemporary media landscape plays an outsize role. Dorothy’s murder trial is a piece of our true-crime obsessed world, where the kind of well-funded storytelling that Dorothy used to do for the fictional magazine Eat and Drink has slipped away. Indeed, Dorothy spends a great deal of time lamenting the downfall of these print glossies. In their place, we have our current environment, packed with listicles and instant celebrities.
Dorothy, on trial, is perfectly suited to become one such celebrity. “Vulture hung on my trial, rated my outfits, made GIFs of my face . . . you read the tweets and you liked them, stabbing that tiny red heart with your forefinger in a hot dopamine rush,” Dorothy intones. Indeed, her ostensible reason for writing down her memoirs is a desire for the kind of immortality that only print offers. She doesn’t want fifteen minutes of fame, she wants to be a legend. Meanwhile, any denizen of the internet can live for the murderer-du-jour’s outfits, watching a drama of death and betrayal and delicious pate with total detachment. Dorothy watches the world enjoy a “hot dopamine rush” at her expense, elevating her to a semi-ironic icon while diminishing the cruelty and utter genius of her crimes. She sees in the gifs and tabloid covers an echo of her own artistic detachment, one with less blood and less artistry.
While it may be satisfying to elevate a sexy killer into a pop-feminist hero, Summers swats those narratives away; they wither beside her descriptions of fresh-caught human tongue, served with olives and Roma tomatoes. She does so not for the sake of a more-serious feminism, nor in order to share a prudish moral lesson, but because this simplification is so heart-stoppingly boring. It’s feminism-as-flattening, turning women into unserious arbiters of truth helplessly borne along by trauma, driven to madness so that they can finally lose control over their own actions and do something interesting. Dorothy Daniels isn’t a metaphor for how women feel—she’s much worse, and much more fun. She’s an artist, getting what she can out of her muses before she leaves them for dead, and making readers uncomfortably hungry as she does it.