From its arresting cover through its final ambiguous page, Regina Hofer’s graphic novel FAT provokes and disorients the reader. Hofer, an Austrian artist and author, battled with anorexia and bulimia from her teen years in the context of family abuse and dysfunction. The memoir promises to resonate with anyone grappling with, or trying to understand, an eating disorder. Armed with sharp lines and indeterminate symbolism, Hofer confronts readers with the reality of distorted perception, mirroring her own experience with anorexia and bulimia: “When you have an eating disorder, you lose a sense for your own appearance—among other things. The perception of your own body changes significantly” (7). Informed readers will recognize through lines sourced from science fiction, the animal kingdom, and even Shakespeare’s Henry V, but may buckle under the weight of the sense-making enterprise, as Hofer’s commitment to disorientation is complete.

Hofer’s memoir is a story of damage, drawn in black and white; there are no gray areas. Describing the daily practice and bodily effects of her eating disorder, she offers panels filled with abstractions—heavily inked circles, dots, slashes, lines—as she plays with negative space. Hofer deploys a visual vocabulary that is less transparently illustrative than it is evocative, and sometimes, meant to disorient. The book’s cover provides the only splash of color, the bright yellow shirt of the objectively not fat narrator, alongside the memoir’s all-caps title, FAT, offering an inaugural experience of dissonance. Artifacts of early twentieth-century industry populate Hofer’s panels: clocks, robots, blimps, and sinking ocean liners conjure the mechanical and nonhuman as sources of violence, and stand in jagged contrast to the more sympathetically rendered animal world, which exists at its mercy. Hofer’s abusive father is drawn as a robot, whose “R.U.R.”-emblazoned chest piece slyly nods to the artificial people—soulless replicants—in Karel Capek’s eponymous 1920 play. Hofer, although protean, sometimes appears almost orangutan-like, with her anorexic’s downy lanugo reimagined as the shaggy hair of a primate; other times, she is a slug, a fish—unhuman, but alive.

Themes of sexualized violence—toward women and animals—abound in Hofer’s work. She visually morphs her father from a human into a robot spaceman, describing him as a master hunter and recounting a degrading “tavern ritual” among hunters that ties together entitled masculinity, sexual cruelty, and disregard for the other, both feminine and animal. Her hometown in Upper Austria—“a place that’s known for its priests”—is surprisingly illustrated with a louche, stubbly, brassiere-clad angel, a naked butch horse-straddling saint, a jowly degenerate pastor, and a little-boy Hitler, juxtaposed to plaque-mounted rabbit heads, as she tenders the cryptic observation that “Not even the forest offers protection from people’s narrow-mindedness” (59). A topsy-turvy armadillo accompanies Hofer’s narrative about being hit on by a man in a bar. Hofer-as-woman and creatures at the low end of the food chain are presented interchangeably, only their suffering in common.

Perhaps the most violence-evoking measure in Hofer’s memoir is her threading-through of excerpts from Shakespeare’s Henry V. Hofer samples heavily from King Henry V’s brutal Act 3, Scene 3 speech, weaving the Bard’s savage imagery of “naked infants spitted upon pikes” and “most reverend heads dash’d to the walls” into the story of her nervous breakdown and devolving relationship with her father. In the speech itself, Henry V shifts blame for the slaughter he threatens, warning the governor of Harfleur that he is about to bring this dark madness upon himself and his town if he fails to surrender, much as the violence of Hofer’s paterfamilias has put her in a no-win situation.

FAT is not a graphic novel about the violence and damage of eating disorders that neatly resolves its tensions. The final page is forward-looking although ambiguous, but any hopes for an epilogue of peace and self-acceptance are seemingly undone by Hofer’s admission on the first page that just two weeks ago, she was still roiling, riddled, disoriented. Hofer’s graphic memoir succeeds in that it provokes a similar dis-ease in readers, laying bare the harsh lived realities of abuse and disordered eating.

Kathleen LeBesco, Marymount Manhattan College