The Guilty Pleasure of Chelsea Summers’ Monstrous ‘A Certain Hunger’

Easy to summarize but difficult to, um, flesh out, Chelsea G. Summers’ A Certain Hunger is, without a doubt, the Great American Female Serial Killer Novel.

A Certain Hunger
Chelsea G. Summers
December 2020

“People tend to think,” narrates Dorothy Daniels, who we learn early on is in prison for murder and more, “that the most natural stories begin at their beginning and unwind through their middle to their completion, and sometimes they do. But that narrative structure is only as true as time, which is to say it’s as much a construct as a house or a dress or a turducken. Stories are, like justice or a skyscraper, things that humans fabricate. I started this story, for example, somewhere near the end, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It makes it artful, but not false. Let me pause to tell a story from when I was a little girl. It’s also true. Everything here is true because, really, why would I lie.” It’s not a question.

Dorothy Daniels, we quickly learn, is a preternaturally hot, smart, 50-something food critic who also happens to develop a penchant for harvesting, prepping, and eating her boyfriends’ select body parts. The chapter titles—”Truffles”, “Lingua con le Olive”, “Steak”, and more—function as thrilling set pieces, but together they shape the story and, like a food blog with a thousand words before getting to the recipe, create powerful suspense, even as the recursive storytelling reveals the gory outcomes from the start. As Dorothy puts it, “a life sentence is like being married, but without the handholding.” Through scenes of vibrant sex and vivid violence, author Chelsea G. Summers refuses handholding as well. Why would she lie. ( Discloser: Summers and I attended graduate school together and remain in touch.)

Easy to summarize but difficult to, um, flesh out, A Certain Hunger is, without a doubt, the Great American Female Serial Killer Novel, The Great Gatsby of women cannibal foodie satirical black comic memoirs. That it’s also the only one is a testimony to its inventiveness, but that’s beside the point.

Fire by google104 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Unlike Nick Carraway, Gatsby‘s less than a reliable narrator who tells us that “every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known,” when Dorothy Daniels tells us she’s telling the truth, she’s not lying. Unlike Nick, Dorothy actually understands herself, and the world. As a woman, she had to learn.

Because A Certain Hunger is unique, further comparisons are inevitable: Bret Easton EllisAmerican Psycho, Thomas HarrisThe Silence of the Lambs, Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita, the entire oeuvre of Chuck Palahniuk. But Nick Carraway, Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter, Humbert Humbert, and Palahniuk’s docket of maladjusted doofuses say everything yet they understand nothing. The reader must infer all that these men do not understand about themselves through only the characters’ restricted point of view. It’s a form of powerful, pervasive irony. A Certain Hunger is many things, but ironic is not one of them.

Certainly, many of the novel’s lines are themselves ironic: “I’ve always been amazed by how much information is available to you if you listen quietly, read carefully, and know how to pick locks.” Or, “Was I mad at him? Some would say yes—I did kill him, after all—but he was indefatigably pleasant company.” But when Dorothy says “Cannibalism, tellingly, isn’t illegal in many countries. I’m not telling you this to imply you should eat a human; I’m telling you this merely to show you that you could eat a human,” neither she nor I believe, author Summers is being ironic.

When Dorothy says, “I’ll never understand people choosing to eat soulless foods—monsters all, say I, the cannibal,” or—another favorite–“I could never be a mass murderer. Mass murder is gauche,” she’s deadly serious. While hiding dirt she’ll later use against a lover, Dorothy thinks, “I stored the business card carefully in a book that I knew Marco would never touch (Alice Walker‘s The Color Purple)”—of course he wouldn’t. As promised, everything she says is the truth—unlike Nick, Patrick, Hannibal, or Humbert, liars and men, all.

Depressed people tend to have a more accurate view of the world, and their ability to change it, than people without depression do, what psychologists call depressive realism. Dorothy Daniels describes herself as “the Bronze Copper of psychopaths, a big, beautiful auburn butterfly that flaps her darkling wings as she eats.” (Sidenote: Lolita author Nabokov was, famously, also a lepidopterist.) Her worldview, then, might be called psychopathic realism. Her psychopathy allows her to see the world clearly. Dorothy may be a psychopath, but she is not crazy.

This lack of irony, this adherence to truth—a word A Certain Hunger repeats throughout—is what separates it from the aforementioned male-authored novels. Unlike her closest male counterpart, Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert (both are sesquipedalian, sent to prison, narrating after the crime, with seven letters in each alliterative name), who waxes poetic and philosophical for hundreds of pages about the joy and beauty of pedophilia, who proudly proclaims, of his underage victim, “she seduced me!”, who is imminently full of shit—Dorothy does not lie. Sure, she lies to other characters as needed, but not to herself, or to whom she’s narrating.

When Dorothy says, “From my mother, I learned that beauty was armor. From my teenage friends, I learned that femininity was junk. They were both right,” she’s telling the truth. When she describes being a young woman in Italy—”I rather enjoyed being objectified. I like it when men look at me as if they want to devour me. I find it deeply entertaining. It becomes annoying only when they start talking, as if I’d have any interest in anything that comes out of their mouths”—she is expressing her truth, reversing the male gaze, and setting her victims up for the ultimate objectification: going into her mouth as food.

She is a woman writing about herself, and men, in the way literature’s most famous men have always written about themselves, and women. She understands men in a way that her male counterparts only believe they do. Appreciating Lolita means despising Hubert no matter how beautifully he begs for our sympathy. Appreciating A Certain Hunger means sympathizing with Dorothy no matter how much she rebuffs that sympathy. When Dorothy says, “Kill one man and you’re an oddity. Kill a few and you’re a legend,” the gendered language is deliberate.

Psychopathic Realism could also be the name of A Certain Hunger‘s new literary genre. Part of the truth means facts, and so, amidst the carnage, readers will learn about the invention of cocktails during Prohibition, the proper preparation of tongue, USDA food regulations, about the “human labor involved in turning dead animals into palatable slabs of meat.” That some readers will breeze through passages of murder but may not be able to stomach pages about cattle butchery seems much of the point of Psychopathic Realism. And unlike, say, Palahniuk’s regular inclusion of factoids (Fight Club‘s famous “if you mix equal parts of gasoline and frozen orange juice concentrate, you can make napalm”), Summers’ research isn’t tripe.

And while unironic, A Certain Hunger is also a certain satire, mainly of food writing and the rise and fall of glossy restaurant magazines, but also of a certain material culture of Boston, Rome, and New York during the 1980s, ’90s, and ’00s. I’ve inevitably quoted the bon mots and focused on the depraved or licentious, but they’re not all, or even most, of the novel. Without the high-concept cannibalism, A Certain Hunger would have been Summers’ Bright Lights, Big City instead of her American Psycho. But that would be like saying that American Psycho sans serial killing could still be a satire of ’80s Wall Street, or Lolita without Lolita a parody of ’50s American motels. It’s true, but it entirely misses the point.

The violence brings the satire to its logical, shocking apotheosis. A Certain Hunger, like these novels, like Gatsby, becomes about a particular brand of American consumerism at a particular time and place. Summers has found a novel way to intertwine horror and violence with our monstrous consumption.

The same can be said of perhaps the greatest satire ever written, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” also, not coincidently, a satire involving cannibalism. It’s still capable of freaking out many a first-year college student. But a scratch beneath its depraved surface reveals a moral center and metaphorical message that its mannered narrator, like Humbert et al, is oblivious to: having the English buy and eat Irish babies as a solution to their poverty shines a monstrous light upon the real-life mistreatment of the Irish. Here, having a woman kill and eat men’s body parts shines a monstrous light on the pervasive sexist synecdoche of women as only their separate body parts, as redheads, as legs, and of course, other parts. Dorothy knows exactly what she’s doing. As she told us, “It makes it artful, but not false.

“What, then, exactly, is “a certain hunger”? The indefinite article, “a” coupled with “certain”, that which is specific yet unnamed: is it food, sex, money, violence, fame? Yes. Hunger is, in the end, discomfort coupled with desire, a definition that comes closest to the experience of reading A Perfect Hunger as any. Why would I lie.

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Additional recommended reading: Maria Konnikova’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy“. New Yorker, 18 June 2014.