Zoe Pilger’s first novel Eat My Heart Out will be republished as a Serpent’s Tail Modern Classic in July 2020.
Beginning in a literal meat-market, before careering its way through Soho restaurants, Cambridge colleges and East London pop-up galleries, Zoe Pilger’s debut novel is a savage and exhilarating read, managing to parody the conventions of romantic comedy whilst also providing an abrasive commentary on the politics of post-feminism.
Eat My Heart Out was first published by Serpent’s Tail in 2014, and won a Somerset Maugham Award and a Betty Trask Award at the 2015 Society of Authors in the UK. It was nominated for a Lambda award in the US.
The sky was still black when the butchers began unloading the pigs from their vans at Smithfield Market. It was five in the morning. I had been to a party nearby. There he was, loitering across the road. He was watching the meat with terror and awe.
His black hair was lank, and, as I approached, I could see that a military medal of some kind was pinned to his beige crochet jumper. He was freakishly tall, about six foot seven. He wore a red hat and he was shaking with cold.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m Ann-Marie. I’m twenty-three. How old are you?’
He seemed shocked that I was talking to him. ‘Thirty-six.’
‘That’s a good age.’ I shoved my hands deeper into my vintage structured tweed and asked him if he wanted to go for a coffee. ‘Maybe we’ve got something in common,’ I suggested.
‘I doubt it.’
‘I adopt loads of pussies from a refuge,’ I said. ‘Yeah, and I love to feed the pussies condensed milk in tiny china dishes. I lounge around on my chaise longue in my red silk kimono and I watch their pink tongues lap it up.’ I paused for effect.
‘They love to lap it up.’
Vic gave me his email address.
That was yesterday.
It was lovely to meet you!
What are you up to later?
I’ll come to where you are.
Today I was waiting at the window on the first floor of a waxing salon across the road from Chalk Farm tube station, where Vic had chosen to meet. The manager had told me that they were nearly closing, but I’d made my eyes look beseeching like a spaniel and the drowned aesthetic must have helped because she let me in. I could hear a pan-pipe rendition of ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’’ emitting from a closed door; I could smell the floral notes of wax. I waited.
To wait is a woman’s prerogative, according to Stephanie Haight, whose book Falling Out of Fate had recently been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. To wait is a woman’s raison d’être. To wait and see what a man will do for you. Do to you. I hadn’t bought the book yet because I had no money, but I’d heard her speak on Start the Week. Her accent had a twang; I couldn’t tell if she was American or English. Waiting for the call, she’d said. Waiting for that fateful ring of the telephone situates woman in a passive position. It is akin to waiting for The Call from God.
November commuters were rushing away from the station in the street below. The rain was torrential; it obscured the stars. There was no one I recognised.
The waxing woman was trudging up the stairs behind me when at last I glimpsed that red woolly hat. ‘Have you seen enough?’ she was saying.
I watched Vic cross the road.
Now the woman had a hand on my shoulder. She turned me round.
‘Do you mind if I wait here for just a few moments longer?’ I said.
She returned downstairs so that I was alone again with that music, which had changed to ‘My Heart Will Go On’. Vic was wearing a red anorak. He didn’t smoke a cigarette; he didn’t look at his watch. He reminded me of a Giacometti: emaciated by the act of living.
I rooted around in my handbag for Heidegger: An Intro and read: Concept of Thrown-ness: One is thrown into the world and one must deal with it. I closed the book. Since I went crazy during my university finals a few months ago, I could only read these terrible comic-style philosophy manuals, and only one or two sentences at a time.
Now Vic was circling a lamp-post.
A door on the right of the corridor opened and a woman appeared with the blank face of one who has just been tortured. Another woman in a white apron followed her. There was an intense smell of sugar – no, cocoa butter. The blank woman was about forty-five, but she was saying in a little girl voice: ‘Thank you ever so much. I do feel so much better now. It’s my anniversary.’ They disappeared without looking at me.
Now Vic was holding onto the lamp-post and looking up into its light, letting the rain fall on his face.
Ten minutes had passed.
Soon he would go.
Would he go?
I watched him reach upwards to the void of sky; he seemed to plead with it. And then he was going, taking long strides with his gloopy, elastic legs, splashing through puddles that reflected cars and red light. He was leaving, he was leaving.
The music had stopped.
I ran down the stairs and across the street. I had lost sight of him; Him. I wanted Him more now, much more, since He was already leaving me.
I found the red hat striding over the bridge towards Primrose Hill. I got close enough to watch the rivulets of water running down Vic’s plastic-covered back. I fell into step behind him. The black heavens never answered my questions. Why not?
I got my arms and legs around him, piggy-back style. He grunted, a stuck pig. He tried to push me off, but I clung and clung and clung. Stephanie Haight had said that that is what women are wont to do.
We fell, together.
I whispered into his ear: ‘Hello Vic, it’s very nice to see you again. Sorry I’m late.’ I paused. ‘This seems like a good moment to lay my cards on the table. You’re my first date since I got out of a really long-term relationship.’
We were flat-out on the pavement. People were walking around us, but no one stopped to help. Vic sat up and touched his forehead. He was bleeding.
I went on: ‘My ex-boyfriend Sebastian was fucking this girl from the Home Counties called Allegra behind my back. I didn’t think I’d ever get over it, but now – since I’ve seen your face, I think I might get over it.’
An extract from Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger now available in a classic edition published by Serpent’s Tail in ebook and paperback at £8.99.