THE WORDS HANGRY and slut are oddly interconnected. The first is one of those slangy, pop culture words added to the online Oxford English dictionary just last year — the perfect amalgam of hungry and angry, it is to be so famished as to be pissed off. Slut, on the other hand, harkens back to the 14th century when Geoffrey Chaucer first used it to describe a slovenly man; soon thereafter the word affixed itself solely to the female of the species and broadened to include the quality of promiscuity. Today there is no such thing as a slutty boy. Men who are promiscuous are called men, or sometimes dogs. Girls, though, are still shamed into believing they’re somehow bad or inappropriate or ridiculous if their hunger for sex — the raw desire — elicits actual pleasure. In the words of Woody Allen: “The difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you.”

That axis of hunger, sex, and death lies at the core of three new novels — Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved, Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and Nora Zelevansky’s Will You Won’t You Want Me?. Each of these young writers is funny and wise beyond her years and knows a thing or two about the price women pay for constantly pleasing others. Their protagonists lead disconnected lives, distanced from their true selves and in a state of free fall. In the emerging genre of Slut Lit, they remind us how women’s bodies — no matter from what generation — have always been a sort of Rorschach test for society’s deeper anxieties about women’s roles.

Schiff’s The Bed Moved is an acerbic collection of short short stories, including one entitled, “Write What You Know,” in which the narrator explains: “I only know about parent death and sluttiness.” The succession of guys the narrator sleeps with in the book’s title piece includes film majors, poets, sweaty apologists, pitchers, and an indecisive dancer-anthropologist who, when he drops one of his majors, earns a dry “Mazel tov” from his kind-of girlfriend. The title tells us that these encounters have nothing to do with love. It’s not that the Earth moved from all that sex. It’s just that the bed moved, because movers literally moved it — though Schiff never spells out why or where her narrator must relocate to, only that she likes to perform in bed for new guys. Why wasn’t her father moving the bed for her, the movers wanted to know?

The answer — because her porno-loving dad is at home dying — tells us that the underlying theme of this slim but provocative book is loss and its accompanying isolation, the kind you feel when you’re young and feeling like you’re the one “stuck waiting for everyone else to come home” while your ailing parent “is fighting statistics upstairs.” Schiff’s world of missed connections is one in which voicemails pick up after no rings, rooms have “permanent guest bed smell,” and a narrator’s biggest thrill is making good on her plan to become the First Lady to a married cancer blogger for whom she’s developed more than a crush.

In “It Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal,” the young protagonist’s fall back, “when flummoxed” and at a loss for words, is the blow job. This should come as little surprise in an era when blow jobs are the new version of making out. Nevertheless, our heroine is surprised when, on a trip to California to visit a pot grower at a nudist colony, she gets kicked out of the Garden of Peace for giving head in the pools, near the “wrinkle-tanned old people in excellent health. Be us, their bodies seemed to say. Our penises only work intermittently, but our hearts are full.” It’s not quite “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” but it’s as close as a slut might get.

Schiff’s stories about grief-fueled promiscuity bring to mind a Jewish version of Cheryl Strayed, (albeit here, the dying parent is the dad) and are darkly comic — but also a little cold, literally. In “Another Cake,” a college student returns home for her father’s funeral, where she finds more absurdity than comfort in the casserole and sponge-cake brigades and the silently mouthed “I’m sorry’s.” Before the service begins, she turns to her mother for a mutual eye-roll at the rabbi’s terrible jokes but soon understands that her mother is attuned to all forms of possible bad taste.

“What?” I said.
I knew what. My nipples were poking at my dress. There’s not much to do about pokey nipples, to be honest, except try to warm them so they flatten. But if you rub them, they might get pokier.”
“Do you want my jacket?” she said. She started to take it off.
“I don’t want it, it’s ugly.”
“Are you sure? It’s freezing in there.”

To the narrator’s relief, her “fake” boyfriend (i.e., her bisexual college boyfriend who deflowered her but is known on campus as “Big Gay Rob”) shows up at the service but doesn’t look sad enough. She, on the other hand, “had no feeling.” Even so: “I made weeping noises. The guests chomped cheddar cheese.” And then, remembering herself from her bat mitzvah days, she thinks of the “girls looking forward to the kind of loss that only hurt a little.” It is a heartbreaking moment of clarity in which she at once lets go of the past and expectations of a certain kind of future that now can never be.

For Mona Awad in 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, the need for self-awareness weighs heavily on Elizabeth or Lizzie or Beth, the protagonist whose name changes as her body morphs from fat girl eating McFlurrys at the McDonald’s in Misery Saga (“which is what you’re allowed to call Mississauga if you live there”) to unhappily married anorexic, counting calories on the Gazelle, a cross between a NordicTrack and a treadmill. The book’s title, of course, pays homage to the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” about finding beauty in a common bird.

Tales of women who define their worth by weight may seem to have been done to death, but in Awad’s capable hands, Elizabeth’s story is one of the saddest I’ve ever read. She identifies “this angry, hungry maw in me that is fathoms deep,” a need that inspires a recurring dream about blowing up a clothing store where “monster bras” are folded beneath signs that say, “FUNCTIONAL CAN BE SEXY,” and where the lyrics to songs piped into the sound system revolve around the word woman.

Shopping for outfits hits every note in the cantata that is Elizabeth’s ever-changing body image. “Only when you look more closely, observe the generous cuts, the longer hemlines, three-quarter-length sleeves, do you see how they give themselves away as clothes for those with something to hide,” she explains. She’ll spend hours searching for “something — anything — that would render me moderately fuckable. And if not fuckable, something in which I could grieve over the fact of not being fuckable with unbaubled dignity.” Trying to find love when you feel unlovable may be the most trying aspect of self-acceptance.

Not being able to say “no” is also a challenge in the journey:

On my way to work the next day, I make a promise to myself. I promise that when the girl I hate asks me out to lunch I’ll say No, I’ll say No, I’ll say No. Then, at around eleven, when she sends me a text that says, Weird Swedish Pizza!! Omnomnom!! I text back, (Smiley Face).

At the heart of Lizzie’s rage, of course, is her mother. In “My Mother’s Idea of Sexy,” the mother-daughter interplay about what to wear, how to wear it, and what never gets said is a study in familial regret and distance. Equally painful is the shifting perception from Lizzie’s husband Tom, who goes from seeing her as “a sleek, beautiful young woman, […] except maybe around the eyes,” to a woman whose “once-soft edges […] have suddenly grown knife-sharp. How they seem pointed at him in perpetual, quiet accusation.”

No matter how thin she becomes, though, there will be no pleasure in her transformation — only desperation and panic and deep ambivalence. Awad’s is a searing indictment of how women conform to cultural norms, from the fitting rooms across the United States to the choices made at backyard barbecues, as men secretly lust for “the best sex I’ve ever had” from guess who? The fat girl, of course, because she’ll “do anything.” The hangry factor here is unbridled.

The moral imperatives of Zelevansky’s Will You Won’t You Want Me? hail from an entirely different orbit. The writing, often overwrought and disturbingly unedited (“Her heeled clogs trampled fallen cherry blossoms, surprised in trails midexodus to the gutter”), at times requires a pickaxe to get to the good parts. And yet the reader cannot help but admire the author’s ambitions, particularly as her heroine Marjorie Plum, the twentysomething former prom queen now living in Brooklyn, questions whether one’s “selfishness hadn’t done permanent damage” as an entrée to adulthood. Change is slow in coming in this novel, though. We learn, for instance, that the protagonist’s Tiffany graduation necklace has been replaced with a “beloved new bird toile cashmere scarf,” as if swapping one piece of luxury adornment with another is a sign of growth.

But the view from Lookout Hill in Brooklyn, where Marjorie’s final choices are realized with lovely clarity, is enough to shed light on what can happen beyond sex and lust and illness. Namely, intimacy.

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Joy Horowitz, who teaches journalism at USC’s Annenberg School, is a contributing editor at LARB.