Dystopian short novella focuses on sexual repression


Author Margaret Atwood, who is known for her speculative science fiction, released her new novella “I’m Starved For You” as a Kindle Single. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Atwood)

Rainy Schermerhorn

I’m Starved for You,” a short novella released as a Kindle Single, is acclaimed author Margaret Atwood’s latest dystopian release. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about Atwood’s work is the sheer possibility of the worlds she constructs in her novels — although satirical in nature, they’re just within enough of a sphere of reality to resonate with the audience. It’s with this degree of possibility that “I’m Starved for You” finds its poignancy, despite its disappointingly short length.

In Atwood’s future, a social experiment known as “Consilience” — an amalgam of the words “cons” and “resilience” — promises a solution to the staggering rates of unemployment and crime in America. Simply put, participants live a double life, spending one month immersed in society and another in prison. In exchange for giving up a handful of civil liberties, the thousands of volunteers involved in the early stages of this experiment are promised full-time employment and housing.

In her 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Atwood speculated a future in which contraceptive rights are restricted to the point of the essential enslavement of women, which in light of recent debates over birth control, rings frightfully possible. It’s with this sense of foreshadowing that Atwood derives her success, with satirical subtleties that leaves the tone of “I’m Starved for You” a bit lighter than her previous work.

Political undertones aside (though it feels unfair to cast aside the novella’s primary socioeconomic commentary), “I’m Starved For You” is essentially a tale of irrepressible sexual lust raged against an inherent orderly system. It begins when Stan, one of the participants of this experiment, discovers a note discreetly hidden beneath his fridge from one of the “alternates” who inhabits the house during his confinement:

“Darling Max, I can hardly wait till next time. I’m starved for you! I need you so much. XXOO and you know what more — Jasmine.”

After suffering the effects of his monotonous existences and trapped in a unsatisfied marriage (with his wife described as breathing aside him “lightly or heavily depending on what they’re doing, or rather on what he’s doing”), Stan ultimately becomes enamored by the fuchsia lipstick stained on the note’s creases.

However, despite its ironically self-aware title, “I’m Starved for You” is far from being a trashy romance novel. Between the science and the speculative, the details of Atwood’s world are what captivates the reader into believing it to be a tangible, if not extremist, future that’s not too far off from where we currently stand. In a 2005 interview with The Guardian, Atwood stated that for her, “the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do … speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand … and that takes place on Planet Earth.” It’s with this definition in mind that “I’m Starved for You” is most effective in its messages of caution.

Advertised by Amazon.com as “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length,” the Kindle Single format, in which the novella was released, is an experimental form of publishing. Primarily for essays or short stories, these texts are generally shorter (30-90 pages) than their novel counterparts. Unfortunately, these strict limitations are the only drawbacks to the novella. The world Atwood creates almost seems too imaginative for a narrative that doesn’t even exceed 100 pages, despite being written specifically for the Kindle Single format.

In some ways, it seems more like a preview of what was meant to be told on a larger scale but was ultimately scrapped and hastily wrapped up. However, that’s not to insult the conclusion itself — it actually ends with a surprising twist that suits the novel well, if only leaving the reader somewhat tantalized by the well-constructed world that reaches fruition in its imagination, but not nearly as well in its narrative flow. Overall, “I’m Starved for You” succeeds in providing an ironic look at the complexities of both sexual repression and the constantly opposing forces of societal order and inherent disarray, if only somewhat discomforting in the reality of its frightening implications.

Published on Wednesday, March 21, 2012 as:Author contributes dystopian novella to Kindle Singles market