The interlinked short stories in Sarah Tolmie’s NoFood (her second published work, after her debut novel The Stone Boatmen) depict a future in which a surgery called TGB (Total Gastric Bypass) has made food unnecessary for the rich. I knew this before I read the book. I also knew, or rather, had heard, that the book was “satirical.” The author’s website describes it as such. These two facts together gave me a misleading impression of what this book would be like. I expected satire along the lines of the recent science fiction TV series Black Mirror—a pointed, acerbic critique with a relentlessly clear thesis about what the hell is wrong with the world. NoFood isn’t like that. It is a book that reminds me how broad the range of what we might call “satire” really is. Like the cult classic The Princess Bride, which was notoriously difficult to market to audiences due to its status as a not-quite-parody, NoFood is wonderfully aware of what is absurd about its world, but it is not interested in mockery. NoFood does not engage in ridicule, not even of the choice to be TGB. It simply explores a premise, warmly, affectionately, with room for doubt, but also with relentless precision. If the book has one unshakable conviction that surfaces again and again amidst the various ideas it entertains, it is that food exists at the center of what it is to be alive. But even here, why—what food does, what it means—unfolds so richly that I couldn’t hope to report the book’s findings in this review. Tolmie’s storytelling simply cannot be reduced down to argument.
The book does not argue for or against eliminating the biological necessity for food. Characters within the interlinked stories view the surgery from different perspectives. For one, TGB is a horror. For another, it makes food a language of love, rather than a crude necessity. For another, it is an ordinary part of life until complications from the surgery take the life of his daughter. For still another, TGB is a strange, almost mythical procedure—the province only of the rich, which he is not. In NoFood, TGB is a way into a new world, a way to rethink what the pleasure of eating might entail, to rethink what it means to eat food that someone has cooked for you, a way to reimagine what causes hunger. What does it mean for hunger to be a sign of love, or of grief?
A dispute between two lovers, one with TGB and the other without, exemplifies the complexity of these stories. Hardy, who despises TGB, is deeply horrified that Seychelles cannot carry a child:
"No, it’s not that—well, yes it is—but I can’t stand the thought of the baby growing outside you, being fertilized outside you, stored eggs, ugh, like caviar—sorry—and then fastening itself inside somebody else like a parasite—"
"You’d rather have the parasite inside me, then?"
"Would you want it inside you?"
"Yes! Yes! Rather than a stranger. Yes! It would be my child then. Ours. In substance and design. Is there some way—?"
"So it’s not our baby if it doesn’t eat us, Hardy?"
He was silent. "Yes," he whispered. She had walked out. They had not spoken—and she had not eaten—for two years. (p. 14)
This fight is funny. It is also awful. No one seems to be right or wrong. It simply makes clear the difficulties, the impossibilities, of living in the world of these stories.
The back of the book tells us that "food is the language of love in a near-future world of plague, smog, and alienation." This is all probably true, but it is perhaps misleading. The first science fiction I read, at around age twelve, both contemporary YA (Feed) and classic (A Handmaid’s Tale, 1984), made me feel lonely. Alienated. I would close these books feeling cut off, distanced, dislocated. What is most striking to me about NoFood is that although the world Tolmie creates is absurd, often superficial, petty, and trivial; although the word "joy" has dropped out of common parlance; although labor and bodies are exploited and wealth remains unevenly distributed; although it is a world in which many people, including one of our protagonists, have had their insides replaced with tubing and can no longer store food in their stomachs or carry children; although several of the characters in the story are, in fact, deeply lonely, the book does not leave me with a sense of alienation, but rather the exact opposite.
Every story in NoFood is about love. Ultimately, though, I think the reason NoFood does not evoke a sense of alienation in me is that the stories are simply too interested in people. Alienation for me means a creeping dread that other people aren’t real. Every person in the book seems to be real and alive, in possession of a mind and a body that means something. In addition to Tolmie's depicting the characters in this way, the characters themselves treat each other like they are real. Even when the interaction between them is all business, people seem to be real to each other. For example, in "Gringo":
“Fully hopped-up medicharge card; no strings; military. Priority access to all the vaccines.” It was true; he had one. It was his, but he had no use for vaccines. The guard was interested, though. He was a young, strong, fit guy, in love with his body and afraid for it, like everyone who worked in hot zones. He grunted in assent, made a just-a-minute gesture, and walked away. A moment later he was back.
“I can get you five,” he said, “from the lab. That’s all that’s above ground at the moment. They might be treated, though, sprayed with something, I don’t know.”
“Fine. Thanks,” said Gringo. The man was being honest about things. He let him speak.
“Come back tomorrow night,” said the guard. “Ask for Michael.”
“Thanks,” said Gringo again. (p. 22)
This exchange isn’t about the forging of a deep connection, but Michael is real to Gringo. He has a name, he has needs, he has fears, he has wants. The casual, almost incidental, reality of Michael does more to undercut any sense of alienation that might otherwise be building than a hundred pages of romance in the hands of another writer.
It isn’t simply men who seem like real people in these stories. Tolmie writes of Seychelles’s friend Donovan: "It was hard to keep Donovan convinced of this, however. She was a pugilist and an epicure" (p. 16). Donovan is a character who could so easily have remained a foil, a caricature—too inconsequential to be a villain. But from the first vivid, surprising words Tolmie uses to describe her, she is much more than that. When I reached the final story in the collection, "Cena," and found that Donovan was the protagonist, I was not surprised.
Structurally speaking, this book is brilliant. The stories are interlinked, yet they build on each other in unusual ways. Tolmie makes use of the breaks, the ruptures between one story and the next. Each story disrupts the expectations that the previous one has set. The relationships between characters change in surprising and poignant ways. The perspective and point of view shifts radically, sometimes detaching entirely from the main narrative thread, yet always adding depth.
Each of the stories contains at least one image that lingers strongly in my mind. From the first story, “NoFood,” the most memorable image is of a young woman and a man who is neither young, nor young looking (a distinction that is necessary, in NoFood), clasping hands over a table. The table is filled with water and small fish. They look at each other and submerge their joined hands. This image is distinctive, unique, even bizarre, but not all of the images that made an impression on me are similarly fantastical. One is simply of a man eating a doughnut. What makes the images in NoFood so arresting is not that they are unusual, but rather that Tolmie has figured out why they matter.
Generally, quoting from a book helps a reviewer make his or her point clear. My earlier observations about the realness of Tolmie’s characters and her complex treatment of the TGB procedure, I hope, benefit from the examples I’ve provided. I am convinced, however, that no excerpt could demonstrate just how resonant the images in these short stories manage to be. Each story builds meaning meticulously, delicately, working from start to finish. Taking part out of the whole simply wouldn’t work. Fortunately, I do not feel I’m doing anyone a disservice by admitting that I can’t hope to capture exactly what Tolmie achieves with these images. To experience this particular effect, one must read NoFood, and I believe that would be an excellent use of one’s time.
Molly Katz is a graduate student at Cornell University. She has taught courses on Shakespeare and fanfiction. She is currently working on her dissertation.