Reviewed: Blue Hunger, Viola Di Grado (trans. Jamie Richards), Scribe
Artists have a long history of entwining the act of eating with the erotic. Eating and fucking both involve a response to your cravings, to your most primal senses. Stretch the metaphor further and there’s a stew of messy feelings to devour: the care and reciprocity involved in preparing a meal stirred in with feelings of guilt; the transgression of bodily desire overriding mental willpower. Take the vampire genre, where the urge to drink blood is helpless but also titillating—invariably exploring dynamics of dominance and submission, and the feeling of giving in to visceral impulse. As Georges Bataille writes in The Accursed Share: ‘The desire of the senses is the desire, if not to destroy oneself, at least to be consumed and to lose oneself without reservation.’
The desire to consume, to be consumed, and lose yourself in sensory pleasures is the central conceit of Italian novelist Viola Di Grado’s Blue Hunger, translated into English by Jamie Richards. Di Grado’s protagonist, a young Italian woman who feels annihilated by the death of her twin brother, contains a propulsive desire to escape herself. She flees Rome for the neon cosmopolis of Shanghai, where she cannot speak the language and doesn’t know a single soul. She is never named, adopting her brother’s name ‘Ruben’ instead. She loses herself in Xu, a troubled Chinese model who she ostensibly loves, but who’s chilly in the bedroom and careless with her feelings.
Ruben and Xu’s relationship is continually framed through the lens of eating. Before their first sexual encounter, the women gorge themselves on an extravagant multi-course dinner. Despite Ruben’s disgust at Chinese food—broth smells of ‘disinfectant’, mushrooms are ‘slimy’ and there’s a morbid focus on ‘tiny bird limbs’ and offal—she forces herself to chew, equating eating to the crucible of courtship. ‘I knew that for the Chinese ordering more than necessary was a principal way of showing kindness,’ Ruben reflects. ‘Seducing a person was the promise of endless nourishment. It was an awkward, bulimic form of love. It was something I could understand.’ When they have sex, she requests that Xu bite her harder and harder, often drawing blood that is described in the most luscious of terms, with comparisons to confectionery and rich sauces. Later, when their relationship begins to flag, Ruben offers pieces of her body to Xu to taste—hair, scabs, excised bits of fat and skin—in a desperate attempt to lodge a tangible part of herself in her lover.
The visceral excess of the prose often feels like a smokescreen for a lack of genuine eroticism. Despite the charged setup, which feels in line with one of Mary Gaitskill’s provocative sex romps, the novel is dogged by the fact that Shanghai and Xu are perpetually othered. The Shanghai of Blue Hunger is one devoid of politics and real history, described with sexy but vague platitudes. It is a ‘city of money and fast love … of buildings erected so tall you couldn’t see the imploring life down below’, while China is ‘the country of philosophy and sex dolls.’ Xu, similarly, is less character and more a pastiche of pop song lyrics, a ‘racecar that might suddenly skid into a ditch … out of her mind, out of control.’ In one early, leaden line, Ruben introduces Xu’s likes and dislikes: ‘she loves pork belly in hong shao sauce and she loves to hurt me.’ The dynamic never develops beyond this point, with both Shanghai and Xu remaining inhuman and remote to Ruben which, as a result, renders their intimacy inhuman and remote. Xu is described as ‘a Mattel plastic alien’, and the sex scenes often feel as if two naked Barbies are being mashed together—probably not the desired effect when characters are flensing off their flesh in fits of passion.
There is something alluring about the stasis Ruben exists in, cocooned in a repetitive, dreamlike purgatory where she cannot move beyond her grief, cannot progress in her relationship or her understanding of her foreign girlfriend. Xu—the first woman Ruben has ever had sex with—leads her into a version of Shanghai beyond her narrow imaginings, into the marginal world of public queer sex, where lovers copulate in the shadowy corners of cinemas, textile factories and slaughterhouses. But these morsels of complexity are quickly scraped away, perhaps due to the elliptical structure or Di Grado’s lack of investment in that heady, more complicated world. Halfway through the novel, Ruben muses in the tone of a travel blogger: ‘Something didn’t add up: I was in China, halfway across the world, but alas, I was still me.’ This book is peppered with flavourless, obvious insights such as these—despite all the lavish acts of consumption, Ruben remains the same dull cipher. Her journey, while full of evocative detours, left me hungry for revelation, for a relationship with a brutal bite. Instead, my appetite was left unslaked.