Let’s Discuss — Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Small loose tufts came away, flakes that got between my fingers, and scattered over the pillow. I did not think anything about it just then; it was as if it did not concern me. I had hair enough left, anyway. I tried afresh to shake myself out of this strange daze that enveloped my whole being like a mist. I sat up, struck my knees with my flat hands, laughed as hard as my sore chest permitted me only to collapse again. Naught availed; I was dying helplessly, with my eyes wide open staring straight up at the roof. At length I stuck my forefinger in my mouth, and took to sucking it. Something stirred in my brain, a thought that bored its way in there a stark-mad notion.

Supposing I were to take a bite

​Have you ever heard of the term “starving artist” ? This is a story about the starving artist*. Readers follow a stream-of-consciousness induced by a young mans’ desire to gain fame as an author, fill his pockets, and more urgently, satiate his stomach. We meet our narrator in a bare room in an upper floor of a building in Kristiania**. He has nothing but the clothes on his back and the thoughts in his head.

The book doesn’t follow a strict plot as it’s dominated by internal monologue, so we’re given a firsthand account of the psychological state of our starving artist. Embarrassed by his condition; perpetual homelessness and unemployment, he’s very much concerned about how others perceive him. At the same time he thinks so highly of himself and holds low opinions of everyone and everything else. In his day-to-day interactions he lies frequently to create a semblance of success and purpose–but it’s a veneer; a crutch to comfort his bruised ego and painful shame. He morphs every uncomfortable moment (in his mind) into a trial, where he somehow overcomes temptation, buffers respectability and enables his superiority complex. And it’s like this for majority of the novel.

I was reluctant to include a passage of this length, but I don’t think Hamsun’s form can be appreciated in snippets:

I woke very early in the morning. It was still quite dark as I opened my eyes, and it was not till long after that I heard five strokes of the clock down-stairs. I turned round to doze again, but sleep had down. I grew more and more wakeful, and lay and thought of a thousand things.

Suddenly a few good sentences fitted for a sketch or story strike me, delicate linguistic hits of which I have never before found the equal. I lie and repeat these words over to myself, and find that they are capital. Little by little others come and fit themselves to the preceding ones. I grow keenly wakeful. I get up and snatch paper and pencil from the table behind my bed. It was as if a vein had burst in me; one word follows another, and they fit themselves together harmoniously with telling effect. Scene piles on scene, actions and speeches bubble up in my brain, and a wonderful sense of pleasure empowers me. I write as one possessed, and fill page after page, without a moment’s pause.

Thoughts come so swiftly to me and continue to flow so richly that I miss a number of telling bits, that I cannot set down quickly enough, although I work with all my might. They continue to invade me; I am full of my subject, and every word I write is inspired.

This strange period lasts lasts such a blessedly long time before it comes to an end. I have fifteen twenty written pages lying on my knees before me, when at last I cease and lay my pencil aside, So sure as there is any worth in these pages, so sure am I saved. I jump out of bed and dress myself, It grows lighter.
​See what Hamsun did there? This entire scene is symbolic. Our narrator awakens early and is suddenly hit with inspiration. The physical awakening is matched with an inspirational awakening, and then paired with a morning shift from dark to light in a matter of minutes. The sentences lend themselves to the psychological race his mind is running. Our narrator is hopeful. But I’m here to tell you it’s in vain…I just want to point out how Hamsun’s style*** engages the reader.
While the primary stimuli is hunger, there are other forces that influence the narrator…for example, there is recurrent mention of God. However, I’m not convinced our artist is actually god-fearing, or of faith–he’s certainly not pious. He appeals to God when things aren’t going his way and credits himself when things do. I’m not going to linger on this subject–just be aware it’s there, particularly with the presence of the “Commander”. This figure aids our narrator with freelance work, food and money. Out of pure kindness he gives without expecting return. Twice he tells the narrator “I know you can write for it” after giving an advance. To me he was really saying, I know you’re worth it–I know you desire life and purpose, and I can help you, if you’re ready to accept my help.

When he had gone a few steps, I remembered all at once that I had not thanked him for this great assistance. I tried to overtake him, but could not get on quickly enough; my legs failed me, and I came near tumbling on my face. He went farther and farther away from me. I gave up the attempt; thought of calling after him, but dared not; and when after all I did muster up courage enough and called once or twice, he was already at too great a distance, and my voice had become too weak.

By the end of Hunger readers will know what poverty does to the soul of man; makes him disagreeable. It makes him observant and opportunistic…experienced. Scarred. And so our experienced starving artist encounters a captain on the pier one day, and asks if there are any positions open on his vessel. This is important because it’s the first time the narrator pursues work that isn’t completely self-involved. He convinces the captain he can carry his own weight and more. Without much question, the captain permits him to sail along and then the story ends…rather abruptly too. The starving artists’ suffering ends when he commits himself to honest, hard work. In return he is awarded food, shelter and more importantly purpose. The ending is a significant contrast. I almost want to call it simple…in the sense that all he had to do to end his hardship as a writer or “journalist” (as he would call himself), is commit to “real” work– get out of his own head and engage in society by making a living through a means not connected to romantic ideas and artistic musings.

* He relies on temporary fixes to sustain him, until he gets established through his artistic work. At times he is both voluntarily starved and involuntarily starved.

**Oslo, Norway

***Hamsun’s mantra for modern literature–intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature, to describe the “whisper of the blood, and the pleading of the bone marrow”

Let’s Discuss — Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Fever make you weak at first, tired and confused. That be the disease eating up your red blood cells. Then it make it so you can’t sleep and you start seeing things. Crazy things. And skin that be black or brown or white all turn the same color–chalky yellow. that be your blood failing and your liver giving up […] Your lips crack, your mind go, and you start seeing more things that ain’t there, knowing they coming to get you (21)

For me, successful speculative fiction, specifically, books dubbed as “dystopian” need to have a healthy combination of political and philosophical undertones, and a unique source of conflict. They don’t need to happen during a specific time period. They don’t need to take place in a certain setting. (Although, innovative scenery is almost always appreciated) They just require politics + philosophy + conflict.  I relate this back to my canon of favorite speculative novels, which have not been apolitical or lacking philosophical development, or haven’t taken place on some distant planet. So where am I going with this?

I finished reading Orleans. It follows the journey of Fen de la guerre, resident of Orleans (formally New Orleans), which has been decimated by hurricanes and Delta fever. Almost every state connected to the Mississippi Delta has been abandoned by the United States’ Government, and everyone in them left to fend for themselves. The protagonist, Fen, ends up without her blood tribe, protecting a newborn child and ushering an outsider around the deadly swamps and bayous of Orleans.

While reading, I was impressed by the world-building. New Orleans has been transformed into third-world circumstance and is environmentally unstable for its inhabitants. Barter is currency, blood tribe is family and promise is just that. Established speculative fiction titles have a tendency to rely on Anglo-parallel worlds as found in High Fantasy, or futuristic space, found in hard Science Fiction. With Orleans the reader has a chance to experience something different; the parasitic and hypnotic ruins of the Delta.

When he enter me, it be through the skin. First a swift wipe of a cold cotton pad, then a needle, sharp and hot, into the biggest vein of my right arm. I cry out, but don’t dare move ‘less the needle tear me even more. He be sweating as he pierce my arm, the soft mound of vein inside my right elbow. He stroke my legs as the blood flows out of my body into the waiting bags. So red, like rubies in the firelight. He take from me until I faint (96)

So here we have an innovative setting, but as mentioned above, that is not a requirement for a successful Dystopian.  What I found very interesting about this novel is despite the source of conflict, it was oddly apolitical. Other than the government abandonment, there was no in-depth power struggle. Yes, blood tribes feud, but the reader gets the feeling these clashes are the norm. Where is the tension and build up between each faction? Who has the power?  At one point there’s the introduction of a potentially devastating element, that if placed in the wrong hands could change the future of the Delta forever, but (and this is a huge “but”) nothing happens with it. On another level, it was odd to me that political undertones concerning race and class were briefly touched upon. An entire portion of the South, which contained a significant number brown people, was basically left for dead– Let’s talk about that? No? Okay, then.

And then there’s some confusion (maybe only on my part) about personal philosophies of central characters, Fen and Daniel. And I’ll be honest I’m a little hesitant to bring up philosophy in a Young Adult storyline, but when you write Dystopian , I strongly believe solid commentary on existence or values or knowledge should be included. With that said, I found Fen and Daniel’s perspectives to be very one-dimensional in this regard. We know Fen wants to save Baby Girl. And? We know Daniel might be able to conjure up a cure for Delta Fever. And? The ABs have guns now. And? Fen cuts off her hair. And? These things happen but there is no true gravity behind the decisions or actions. They just happen…

I don’t want to seem like I hated this book because I didn’t. It had some really good elements. Specifically, the hematological ones: blood tribes and hunters.  Very cool. Hypothetically speaking, if my immediate family lived in Orleans, we would be split into different tribes and forced to barter for basic necessities. Good thing we live in the mid-Atlantic.  I just feel there was so much unrealized potential in this storyline. I also don’t think it was a successful dystopian. It can be argued Orleans is more of Southern Gothic set in the future, than Speculative or Dystopian.