Reflections on “Singularity” by William Sleator
You can find my recent review of SINGULARITY by William Sleator at this link. Spoilers abound from here on out.
This post contains discussions of dysmorphia, dysphoria, disordered eating, and fatphobia, with a brief mention of fictional bullying and animal death. Please take care of yourselves and skip it if you need to.
SINGULARITY sits with a small group of books, among the many I read as a teen, which I read just once or twice and then I was left with an outsized impression of some singular facet of the story and didn't re-read them until I was an adult, if at all. Trying to write about a book that was deeply impactful on me as a teenager is strange. I've discovered for myself a thing other people know: at some point its echoes into the present are more about how I've changed than what it said in the first place.
When I was around fourteen or fifteen, I was an "overweight" teenager who was still several years away from figuring out I was queer, and over a decade away from figuring out I was nonbinary, trans, or anything that could make it “reasonable” for a masculine idea of body image to seem like it could be something that applied to me. I had, however, absorbed a lot of toxic ideas about what I was supposed to look like, and had decided to deal with my mix of dysmorphia, dysphoria, and internalized fatphobia by doing nothing about it at all. I also didn't have any of these incredibly useful terms with which to conceptualize my experience.
Then I read SINGULARITY, in which a slightly chubby, unathletic, teenage boy (Harry) differentiates himself irrevocably from his more athletic twin brother (Barry) by taking advantage of a time distortion to spend a year while his brother sleeps a single night. When he exits the time distortion, it is coincidentally used up in a way that means his twin (even if he so desired) could not spend his own lonely year to “catch up”. Their ages will be out of sync for the rest of their lives. Barry had actually threatened repeatedly to do this to him, to forcefully exit their twinness and get away from Harry, except Harry does it first, and he transforms himself in a way that’s partly the result of getting an extra year of puberty before Barry can, and partially due to the extreme amount of exercise he’s able to pack in when his food is limited, and exercise and reading are his only means of entertainment during his year in the shed.
At the time I was fascinated and inspired. I didn’t see the way it used fatphobic societal pressures and sibling bullying as an element of horror, instead I got the message that I could change anything I wanted if I was stubborn, patient, and had a year. I started running at night, soon forgetting that this book had prompted my actions. In the intervening years my dysmorphia distorted the book in my mind, until I remembered it as focusing much more on weight and food than it actually does, but that's at least partly because I correctly recalled how much it emphasized the positive physical changes of Harry's year in the shed. His food was restricted in variety, but not really restricted in quantity. None of the narration focuses on hunger. In a strange way it presents this idealized fantasy that just giving up distractions, building a routine, and exercising more could create this physical transformation. To me, the idea that it could create it "in anyone" was implicit, a thing I now know to be untrue. That it happens to work for Harry is actually a matter of luck and timing, since he was a cis teenage boy already partway into a growth spurt when he goes into the shed. It's also something that has nothing to do with real bodies at all, since all Harry "had" to do, really, was be under the pen of an author who wrote that the transformation was successful.
Rereading it as an adult, with two starvation "diets" behind me (one in high school, a year or two after first reading SINGULARITY, the other when I was told to lose weight in order to be allowed top surgery), I'm struck by how it exists in this space where it's definitely sci-fi and probably horror, but it's hard for me to tell which parts are specifically meant to be horror, if any. It's not a romp, as it explicitly involves bullying and their dog dies in the time distortion. It's also not explicit about being horror. Harry is a totally different person after his year in near-total isolation, unable to emotionally connect with Barry and seeing his reactions as childish rather than them having some hold over him. The book ends with him thinking about how he'll see his parents in a few weeks, which is like no time at all. This could be ominous or calming, like Harry has learned that no one thing matters enough to stress over, or perhaps he's learned not to care much about anything external.
I come away from revisiting SINGULARITY, glad that it's not as fatphobic and diet-focused as I remembered. It's the book that got me to start caring about my body, to do small things on a regular basis and trust that they could add up over time. It was also the first story I'd read that featured a male protagonist with body issues, something even now I don't often encounter.