Uzodinma Okehi's House of Hunger
Reviewed by Persephone
When I reflect on a book, what matters as much as the writing are the conditions in which I received it and the conditions under which I then engage. In June, I mobilized every ounce of courage I had inside of me and attended an Expat Press event in Chicago. I don’t really like meeting new people. I don’t really like talking to strangers. These days, I’m not very comfortable in social situations. And to round the whole thing out, the event had a strict “no cameras, no phones, no social media” rule. (It’s worth noting that actually I love this rule and wish more artistic events would adopt it. The constant surveillance and social media-fication of everything gives me the ick.) I knew only a single person who was busy being sweet and social and when he got a moment, graciously introduced me to a few others.
One of the people I met had a copy of House of Hunger by Uzodinma Okehi in his hands. It was an extra copy if I’m remembering correctly, and this lovely writer offered me the book. I accepted it because I believe it’s bad luck to turn down book gifts (writer’s superstition I guess) and because of the no phones rule, the one thing that kept me from collapsing in on myself was this sweet little book, small and slim enough to fit in my jacket pocket, that I clung too for dear life. I used it to quell the anxiety, the most perfect excuse to avoid eye contact with strangers.
House of Hunger takes place in Iowa City, Iowa. I hate that place. I hate the corn-fed white girls (I am one). I hate the weird ecosystem of the university campus. Okehi’s storytelling is frenetic, jarring even. He captures all the desperate awkwardness as he moves from scene to scene with a poetic sharpness. His narrator, Blue, whose story we follow as he traverses the monotony of the undergraduate experience, pulls us into the bubble where everything moves differently. We’re trapped in that liminal space where life is just classes and chunks of time between classes. “Life settles on you, a fog of confusion, And from there, everything feels shameless.” All the unfinished art projects, the neon glassy-eyed haze of videogame consumption, obsessively wanting to fuck. The endless grey.
I’m told this book is autofiction, but I didn’t read it that way and I don’t really care to argue that. What I want to emphasize about this story is that it moves quickly and what still sticks out in my memory (June was a very long time ago) is the gritty descriptions of a place I do not like but can vividly picture. Blue is an outsider. He feels like an outsider and moves through each identically-titled chapter in a kind of pendulum swing between the practical and the existential. Maybe pendulum swing is too soft. Maybe it’s more like whiplash.
In addition to this book feeling like a sort of gut punch as well as reprieve from social awkwardness, the novella is the bite-sized length I enjoy most because I have a short attention span and bore easily. I love the pace of this one. I never lost focus. Okehi’s storytelling is stirring and vigilant. Each detail builds up like magnesium chloride residue from icy roads during midwest winters. Blue is kind of a loser and he’s also trying, maybe even desperately, to get the fuck out of that awful city. Both reader and narrator are moving toward some kind of great escape. We’re waiting for Blue to make a decision that will change everything and we’re sitting in all the agita that exists just before that.
Persephone's writing has been published by Expat Press, Hobart Pulp, and House of Vlad, among others. @hacksawplaydate