By Jonathan Rosen
Random House; 309 pages; $24
Eve's Apple is a first novel about anorexia. A young woman named Ruth Simon suffers from it, and the narrator, her boyfriend Joseph Zimmerman, is on an all-consuming quest to understand and cure it. The two of them, who met in college, have been living together in New York for six months when the novel opens. Ruth has been obsessively maintaining a reasonably healthy weight, and Joseph has been earnestly hoping that his loving devotion will ease her self-loathing (and improve their sex life). But suddenly he has reason to suspect her of bingeing, and the solicitous lover turns sleuth. A "binge reader," he makes it his hidden vocation to amass clues to the secret of anorexia. His sources range from clinical studies to Rudolph Bell's Holy Anorexia and Kenneth Clark's The Nude, not to mention Ruth's diary and the recesses of her anatomy. (He peruses her teeth for signs of decay from recurrent vomiting; he flips through her laundry checking underwear for pubic-hair shedding, a sign of malnutrition.) Six months later, when the novel ends, Ruth has become a wraith and checked into the same private hospital she was sent to as a starving teen-ager. Joseph, who has nearly had a breakdown, has come to a jolting conclusion: "The body wasn't a book. The body was simply the body. I had been misled by metaphors as much as Ruth."
If this book were a body, it would be an anorexic one. From the outset, the contours of Ruth's and Joseph's problems are skeletally clear. She fits a standard anorexic profile: overachieving daughter from a well-off family, with a distant father and a mother whose ambitions (intellectual and sexual) have left Ruth feeling overshadowed and neglected. She struggles daily with a grossly distorted self-image and an unrequited hunger for love. Sensitive Joseph is a striking departure from male stereotype, yet the key to his anomalous solicitude and eager empathy could not be more obvious. Joseph's older sister Evelyn, the good girl in the hard-working and undemonstrative Zimmerman family, committed suicide when she was 16. He has been guiltily preoccupied with the mystery of female misery ever since.
On top of these bare bones, Jonathan Rosen gives his book a big head--another telltale feature of the anorexic body, as the expert Joseph observes. ("Even with its turtleneck top doubled over, I could see, could almost feel, that her neck was unnaturally thin, giving her head ... an enlarged look.") As if the reader can't see right away that Joseph has an appetite as perverse as Ruth's (because Joseph himself doesn't see it right away), Joseph the narrator laboriously mulls over the lessons he is learning about her and about himself. Rosen provides him with a teacher, too, a lapsed psychoanalyst named Dr. Ernest Flek who discourses more definitively. It's Flek who gives Joseph his reading list, even as he warns him of the futility of his quest in oracular tones:
Can't you see, Joseph? You're not just trying to save Ruth. You're trying to solve the riddle of female sadness itself. You're trying to solve the self-destructive urge of humanity. You're trying to crack the mystery of the body. Take it from someone who once tried to do these things for a living: it isn't possible. You've been hunting the white whale and it isn't going to end well if you don't take care of yourself.
F iction inevitably loses some of its absorbing appeal when you can see every muscle of the story move. There are moments (like Flek's sermon) when this novel can make you wince. But it is precisely the artless refusal to pad out the psychological drama, coupled with a fastidious attention to the most mundane physical details, that give Eve's Apple its interest. In his awkward novel, Rosen captures two awkward, important truths about anorexia: that its peculiar logic is not just tragic but comic, and that despite the fascination it holds for those who suffer from it, and for those who seek to make sense of it, anorexia is in fact quite boring.
This romantic book is saved by unexpectedly wry realism. In sensitive-obtuse Joseph, Rosen has found a humorous guide to the upside-down world in which an anorexic suffers. In a typical scene, Joseph desperately needs to find out whether Ruth is bingeing. A kiss becomes a pretext for checking out her dental enamel, a stroke of her hair for testing the firmness of the roots--a gawky parody of Ruth's own involuted, detached sexuality. All the poking and prodding rouses the irritated victim herself to a joke, an unusual display of wit at her and his expense. Ruth reaches down to her crotch (while Joseph's heart pounds in excitement), and "between pinched fingers she held a single, wirelike hair. She offered it to me, a wildflower from a forbidden field. 'For you,' she said." The quirky physical moments are easier to convey than the psychological monotony of the obsession. But Rosen dares to make Ruth's character as lacking in distinctive contour as she wishes her body were. Joseph finds her enigmatic, but the only real enigma about this self-absorbed woman that we're ever aware of is her anorexia. The rest of her life is dwarfed by her fixation, which only becomes larger and more symptomatically classic--and more of a problem for him and for her--the more Joseph fixates on it. The novel's epigraph from, what else, Kafka's "A Hunger Artist," is a warning:
"I always wanted you to admire my fasting," said the hunger artist.
"We do admire it," said the overseer, affably.
"But you shouldn't admire it," said the hunger artist.
Joseph's relentless visits to the library, Ruth's relentless visits to the bathroom scale and, in her mind's eye, to the meals she has eaten that day--Rosen records just how tedious, how paradoxically soul-entrapping, it can be to live and to ponder the anorexic urge to escape the body. Tyrannical order is, in fact, the essence of the disease, as Flek teaches Joseph: Anorexia, he intones, is "all about control--about keeping chaos at bay." And then concentration-camp-thin Ruth, in a burst of unusual clarity and impatience, shakes Joseph up with the most mundane diagnosis of all: "I'm just a girl from Westchester who has trouble with food. This isn't Germany, 1945. You can't liberate me. This is New York City. And you can't bring me back from the dead. I'M NOT DEAD."
Eve's Apple turns out to be a sturdier book than it seems. Joseph finally finds his way through the metaphors, while Rosen proves himself a master of the more prosaic but rich art of the simile. Max, Joseph's greedy cat, "was like [Ruth's] hunger gone out of her--prowling in the kitchen, nosing in the cabinets, leaping on the table at dinnertime." A parrot "perched suddenly on the windowsill and shuffled himself like a pack of cards." Waking up to the sound of Ruth jumping rope late at night, Joseph heard "the soft, rhythmic thump of her bare feet on the floor, like the beating of a giant heart." There's surprisingly ripe flesh to be found on Eve's Apple.