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Separating Fat from Fiction

A novel takes on the social issue du jour

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty

We’re sitting on one of the biggest health epidemics of modern times, quite literally. Researchers recently identified the troubling creep of “desk derriere”— fat, flat butts whose size and shape are the product of too many hours spent planted on our behinds—a malady anatomically specific enough to cut through the constant drone of dire obesity warnings from the CDC. The fact is, even if we’re not the size of that poor fellow lumbering ahead of us in the supermarket checkout line, many of us could stand to lose a few pounds.1

Lionel Shriver is not the first novelist to tackle this weighty subject,2 but her latest book, Big Brother, promises a particularly shrewd fictional treatment. Shriver specializes in exploring contemporary issues that, in the hands of a less imaginative writer, would end up as thin “ripped from the headlines” stories or didactic set pieces. Her best work—Big Brother is her twelfth novel—presents characters so fully formed that they inhabit her ideas rather than trumpet them. We Need to Talk About Kevin, published in 2003, was a profound treatment not only of the scourge of school shootings but also of the anxieties that attend modern motherhood. So Much for That, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2010, was a blackly comic rendering of a couple’s experience negotiating America’s byzantine health insurance and medical systems—and their own difficult families—when the wife is diagnosed with a rare cancer.

Shriver doesn’t always hit the mark so squarely. For example, her 2012 novel about terrorism, The New Republic, was too droll and broadly satirical to achieve the emotional resonance of a book like We Need to Talk About Kevin. (She’d written The New Republic 14 years earlier but had trouble getting it published.) But even her lesser work is worth reading. Shriver is less concerned with the pretentious requirements of making art than she is with digging the dirt from under the fingernails of her subject.3

What will she have to say, then, when she chews the fat? 

Big Brother is a tale of two siblings—Pandora, an entrepreneur living with her husband and two stepchildren in Iowa, and her older brother, Edison, a once-dashing jazz pianist from New York who arrives for a visit so fat he’s unrecognizable when his sister picks him up from the airport. Shriver’s central questions are these: What’s driving Edison, who looks like he should be hovering in the sky above a football game, to gorge himself into oblivion? And how far can—and should—his sister go in trying to help him?

The narrator in Big Brother is Pandora, a plain woman (“I gloried in anonymity”) who found love and professional success relatively late. Now in her early forties, she’s enjoying her marriage to cabinetmaker Fletcher and running a thriving company that makes special-order talking dolls for customers based on someone they know. Edison’s arrival throws Pandora’s pleasant life into disarray.

Bound by blood and the shared trauma of a bizarre Hollywood childhood, Pandora has always looked up to her brother. Now, she struggles to reconstruct her view of him—“I had never felt sorry for my brother, and the pity was horrible.” It’s at least as hard to witness the reactions of the rest of her family, particularly her health-nut of a husband, who’s never gotten along well with Edison anyway. Soon she is faced with a decision: Devote herself to Edison’s recovery, temporarily moving out of the family house and putting herself on the same extreme diet that appears Edison’s best hope, or pack him off when he literally has no place to go.

A conversation between Pandora and Edison lays out the puzzle of obesity for those who aren’t fat.

“I don’t understand how you could have put on so much weight in just a few years."

“Try it sometime. It’s not hard."

"He was right. Add four Cinnabons per day to a calorie-neutral diet, and you could gain 365 pounds in a single year. “But…” I asked feebly, “why?"

“Duh! Because I like to eat!”

“Well, everybody does.”

“So it’s no big mystery, is it? Everybody includes me, and I like to eat a lot.”

The cause of obesity is the very thing that, in moderation, is necessary to survival. Just where is that glutton-defined Rubicon? Why is it that many of us, even if we aren’t waifs, would never consider crossing it, and others can’t return from the other side?

Food itself is very nearly a character of its own in the book. An over-the-top chocolate-chip pancake breakfast, whipped up by Edison, arrives as an uninvited guest. There are vats of chili and five-cheese lasagnas and, when Pandora’s husband cooks, tempehs and quinoas. So it’s odd that the true pleasures and temptations of food don’t really feature in the book. In spite of the fact that Pandora is a bit pudgy herself, and once ran a catering company, she describes food, not quite credibly, as “the idea of satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself, which is why diet can exert the sway of religion or political zealotry.”

That cerebral analysis is typical of Pandora’s ruminations, which are rampant and often memorable. (“It is impossible to gauge what you owe people. … As soon as you begin to keep track, to parcel the benevolence out—you’re done for. In for a penny, in for a pound.”) But they emanate from a character who, while excellent literary company, is not quite believable. She’s too self-aware, too analytical, and far too articulate. If Shriver has a weakness, it’s that she can’t write a character who isn’t as sharply observant as she is, and that weakness is acutely evident in Big Brother because of the way Shriver concludes the book. In a sleight-of-hand reminiscent of her alternate-scenario novel The Post-Birthday World, Shriver asks us to look at the story she has just told very differently. But this is hard to do when Pandora’s hyper-descriptive narrative has presented such a precise and complete version of it. The result is an ending that’s a letdown—a rarity for Shriver.

Part of Shriver’s success owes to her gift for giving the social issues she takes on an intensely personal dimension. But there’s a peculiarly immediate and intimate hue to  Pandora’s agonizing choice about how far to go in her quest to save Edison. Perhaps that’s because Shriver’s own brother died a few years ago as a result of complications from morbid obesity. Before his death he faced the possibility of bariatric surgery, for which Shriver would have had to put her own life on hold in order to help him recover. Shriver’s own struggle may help explain why Big Brother feels messy, even truncated, the conclusion uneasy.

But at least Big Brother isn’t a quietly devastating novel, conscientiously offering a sensitive treatment of a tragic disease. Instead, Shriver confronts Pandora—and her readers—with the ugly spectacle of death by Cinnabon. It isn’t her style to let her characters go gentle into that good night. Shriver recognizes no sacred cows. At first that makes you trust her less; very soon you grow to trust her more, no matter how many dark  alleys she might lead you down.

  1. The research firm Marketdata estimates that last year Americans spent well over $60 billion on weight loss products, books, and programs.

  2. Of note most recently, Jami Attenberg came out with The Middlesteins (2012), about a Jewish family in Chicago in which the matriarch is eating herself to death. The story reveals, from multiple perspectives, the damage that Edie Middlestein is doing to herself and her family. It’s a sensitive treatment that deservedly received wide praise—and couldn’t be more different from Big Brother.

  3. That impression Shriver gives that she’s considered the issues she writes about from nearly every angle, and has addressed head on the uncomfortable questions they raise, is perhaps why she’s often regarded as a serious authority on her subjectsAfter the shootings at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, last December, for instance, Shriver was interviewed on the BBC about the place of guns in American society.