Pushcart 2014: Ayşe Papatya Bucak, “Iconography” from The Iowa Review, Fall 2012

Soon there will be a girl who will not eat. Someone call her the Turkish Girl; others, the Starving Girl.
Like most, I will read about her, see her decline and rise on the news. I, like many, will find her beautiful, though I won’t know why.
It will happen, simply, like this:
One day she wakes feeling full, and so she skips breakfast, then lunch, then dinner, and she wakes the next day so hungry she still doesn’t eat, the pain so exquisite that it feels true. It feels exactly like her.
But that truth is little known.

Follow the narrator! That’s what drove me on as I read, the story turning, mutating into something else, a written kaleidoscope twisted by section breaks and shifting frames. That’s what I loved most of all, in a story I loved thoroughly: the question of “who is the narrator” that led me through. I think I know, now, or at least I have an opinion I’m willing to defend; but I think the story makes it clear that, whatever it is I know, or think I know, you may know (or think you know) something different. And we will all be right.

It starts out as the story of an eating disorder, but it soon moves on to show us how public opinion is formed and influenced and shifted; I was reminded of the murmurations displayed in “Thirst” a few stories ago. I think the title reinforces this: we turn people, real people, into publicly recognized icons of this or that issue, forgetting that people are complicated and very few issues of any importance can be summed up in 140 characters.

But like a wheeling flock of starlings, the story itself shifted into a different swoop: for a while I thought it was a humanist, or maybe even anti-consumerist, metaphor:

Most of the time, she is in a state between fantasizing and dreaming. Newspaper headlines float in front of her, captioning a future in which hundreds, then thousands of students join her fast, followed by the elderly, then the overworked, the immigrants, the stay-at-home parents, their toddlers, the teachers, the small-business owners, the used book sellers, the hedge fund brokers, the CEOs, residents of the West, of the self, of the East, until finally no one is eating. It is a hunger strike so large that everything changes, and for at least a year, ours is a world in which everyone helps each other, and the worst things that happen are the kinds of arguments you have when you are tired but that can be solved when you’re arrested again.
It is not a future she invents; she believes it is the future come to her. And maybe it is.

Then it’s a story about human narcissism, of other people and how they react to her: the students who use her in service of their cause, the University president who sees how this is reflecting on him and his school (“For just a moment the president of the American university wants to call her a stupid bitch, even though he is not the kind of person to think, let alone say, such a thing. Look what this is doing to me, he thinks”). And through each of these turns, the story comes back to The Starving Girl, reminding us that no matter what we may see in someone’s story, we must remember there is a someone there. And she is starving.

The narrative shifts are a course in themselves; I’m hoping Ken Nichols will encounter this story in the future and do one of his terrific Great Writers Steal posts; I’d love to see an analysis of the narratology by someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. In the meantime, I’m left to my own devices.

We get the narrator right off the top, in the opening paragraph quoted above – notice how she (there is no gender identification for the narrator; I use “she” only because I must use something, so why not) reads about The Starving Girl (whose name we never know). The narrator is very cagily written; she never says who she is (or, more accurately, who she’s implying she is keeps shifting). She disappears from time to time, only to re-emerge, as if to remind us, just as we are reminded that just as there is a girl at the center of the Starving Girl, there is a narrator at the center of this Story.

The narrator knows a great deal about the Starving Girl:

Never does the Starving Girl think of herself as anything but hungry. It is the others who give her act drama and meaning, which, in the end, she is happy to accept.

This is not some distant newspaper reader following along; we know that from the narrative closeness to the subject. At least, in that passage. In other passages, the narrator reads differently; the narrator becomes an omniscient explainer, relaying events the Starving Girl has no way of knowing in the time of the story: her parents’ trip from Turkey, and, even more intricately, the family drama that erupts with the distant cousin of the assistant manager in charge of their family business while they are away. An omniscient narrator, then?

At some points, the narrator becomes intrusively didactic, directly addressing the reader:

And how would you describe hunger? We live as if we know what we want, as if we are capable of deciphering the signals our bodies send out, but what if we are wrong? I may say hunger feels like illness, but how can I know how it feels to her? Or what if hunger is an illness that eating covers but doesn’t cure? Could eating be one more drug that masks the disease?

She always returns to narrating a story as she relays the rumored and possible outcomes of the Starving Girl’s saga, in a revolving role. She is among the group of “journalists, celebrities and intellectuals” who gather around the girl to determine what should be done; she is a fellow patient in an eating disorders clinic where the Starving Girl ends up in another scenario, giving almost (but not quite) a first-person-plural feel to the selection; she is the driver who takes her and her parents from the hospital.

The narrator is by and large an observer, reporting what she sees or feels or thinks, participating minimally, if at all, in the drama of the Starving Girl. I love observer narrators. They have so much more freedom to speculate than participants, and a clearer vision, since they are less emotionally invested in the interpretation. Or are they? This is a story about people to get highly invested in the Starving Girl’s personal situation, for their own reasons.

Who is the narrator?

At this moment (and this may change; fluid narrative technique requires fluid reading) I think it’s the Starving Girl herself. I think the detachment she experiences is a need to be less emotionally invested in her own situation. It’s a technique I was once taught for dealing with strong emotion that might lead to words or actions I could end up regretting: don’t get angry, take notes; don’t react, describe. I wonder if the Starving Girl was taught this technique, too. I wonder if it’s more like dissociation, a symptom of many psychiatric disturbances including eating disorders.

In a prior post, the notion of awe – the study of awe, in fact – featured into poetic discussion, and I listed a few times when I’d experienced awe; I used certain stories as an example. I felt that awe again while reading this one that unfolded and morphed and recreated itself, pulling me in deeper and deeper. It’s not a long story, and I think that’s a good idea; much longer, and it could lose its unity and implode of its own complexity.

Even I, as closely as I read this, nearly forgot to wonder about the Starving Girl. Is she all right now? She is a fictional character, of course. But she is, through this story, very real.

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3 responses to “Pushcart 2014: Ayşe Papatya Bucak, “Iconography” from The Iowa Review, Fall 2012

  1. Ha ha…I don’t know if I really know what I’m talking about, but I certainly had some ideas about what Ms. Bucak did with the narrator of the piece.

  2. Pingback: Pushcart 2014: The End | A Just Recompense

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