Joanna Torrey's "Hungry" promised to be a narcissistic treat, a book for and about young, urban, neurotic women, the kind of breezy fiction that offers poignant shocks of recognition and the empowering feeling that one isn't alone. I opened "Hungry" giddily, expecting a taste of the exhilarating empathy that novels like "Fear of Flying" and "The Bell Jar" abound with. Sadly, although "Hungry's" back cover touts a "shamelessly sexy" exploration of "female hunger -- sexual, psychic, material and gastronomic," reading this collection of six short stories and a novella is like opening a Godiva box and finding it filled with crumbly Snackwell cookies.
None of the protagonists in these stories -- all of them nameless -- is anything near voracious. Both their meals and their sex lives are desultory and cold, which is fine, since isolation and alienation can make for moving fiction. The trouble is that Torrey's prose mirrors her anti-heroines' ennui. Her attempts at insight are often non sequiturs. In one story, she writes of a lover slapping her with his penis: "One time I was sitting in an armchair after he'd come and he stood next to me and whipped me with it across the cheek like a rubber truncheon, making such a thick wet sound, stunning me, leaving a red weal across my face, then fell to his knees apologizing; he had no idea it would hurt, he thought it was no longer hard, he was only playing. Perhaps this is, after all, what love is?" It seems unlikely that anyone with even the faintest idea of what love indeed is could have written that line.
That's not to say that "Hungry" doesn't have its moments. The title story has some dead-on observations. Torrey's narrator says of her apathy toward sex after dinner, "Things seemed drab after the restaurant. The glow of good eating was gone. She preferred making love first, then eating. Anticipating dinner afterwards made the end of sex less lonely." This is the kind of knowingness that I had hoped for from the whole book, since the lust, desperation and longing that surrounds women and food is such unmined fictional ground. The best line in "Hungry" concerns sidewalk cafes in Manhattan: "All those eating disorders walking by and wanting what was on your plate."
The novella, "Me and Mine," about a legal secretary, also rises above the rest of the collection. Torrey was a legal secretary when she wrote it, which is likely why this narrator seems so much more real than the book's other characters. The women in the other stories stumble through their lives as if in a trance, their motivations opaque. In "Parking Lot," a woman leaves her rent-controlled Manhattan apartment to "cohabitate" in New Jersey with a man she's known for three months. Much of the story is a dispassionate catalog of soul-crushing suburban banality, but we never understand why she doesn't flee, why she left the city in the first place to live with a man who makes pigs-in-blankets for dinner. In "Me and Mine," though, the trap of the narrator's life is more visceral, and we start to feel her lack of options and enormous loneliness. Each chapter in "Me and Mine" is a day of the week, and Torrey minutely and sadistically details the slights that the secretary suffers, the tiny dramas and degradations of office life. There's no catharsis here, just mounting disgust and pity. "Hungry" is the wrong title for this book. If it wasn't already taken, a more appropriate name would have been "Nausea."