BIG BROTHER by Lionel Shriver Harper Collins $29.99
In her career, Lionel Shriver has never shrunk away from tackling confronting topics. The Orange Prize-winner of the best-selling We Need to Talk About Kevin is known for her dark subject matter and dry, sardonic prose. There’s a watchfulness about Shriver – when reading her, I feel she’s artfully dangling her characters like well-crafted but frequently hollow wooden puppets. As many of her characters are also extremely unlikeable, it’s often hard to empathise with them. At the same time, I appreciate her honesty and complete lack of sentimentality as she deals with the noir in fiction.
Her latest novel. Big Brother, was inspired by her own story: Shriver’s brother Greg was morbidly obese and died without her being able to help him. This first-hand understanding has led her to write a novel that is perceptive, and thought-provoking, ranging widely from sibling affection, to dysfunctional family life, and naturally, the nature of obesity and body image.
Pandora is a successful forty-something business woman, whose custom-made “Baby Monotonous” dolls have brought her wealth and a degree of fame. She is married to Fletcher and step-mother to his two adolescent children. Fletcher, a health food “Nutritional Nazi”, makes custom-made furniture nobody wants. This creates a degree of tension within the relationship that is hinted at rather than fully explored. When, after a long absence, Pandora’s brother Edison comes to stay, she can’t even recognize him at the airport. Her once slim, sexy, jazz musician brother now weighs nearly 400 pounds.
Edison proceeds to create havoc in the household – he breaks Fletcher’s favourite piece of handmade furniture; cooks calorie-ridden meals for the family dripping in fat and sugar. In one graphic scene, he rushes to the bathroom and blocks the toilet with a bowel movement so gigantic, effluent overflows onto the floor. Shriver handles this scene with characteristic coolness, letting the facts speak for themselves.
Pandora makes a life-changing choice: she leaves Fletcher to look after Edison and ensure he returns to a healthy weight. Pandora has also put on weight over the years and joins him in his diet. A large section of the novel is devoted to their stringent low-calorie meals (a “Ketosis Party” is a highlight), their struggles and triumphs as they both return to their former, lightweight selves.
With the exception of We Need to Talk About Kevin (in my view still her best book), I have never felt Shriver handles love and intimacy with any great insight and subtlety. Scenes between Pandora and Fletcher appear contrived, her relationship with her step-children aloof. Even her affection for Edison reads like a rationale for plot – after all, they haven’t seen each other for years so why should Pandora become his rescuing angel?
But when she talks about food, our attitude to eating and our concepts of self, Shriver excels. In a world where one in three Americans and Australians are classified as obese, this novel raises important questions. Pandora cannot bring herself at the beginning to discuss Edison’s ballooning weight with him. It is the “elephant in the room” she feels embarrassed to acknowledge. Ignoring the problem is almost like wishing it away, and one wonders how many cases of obesity in families are also put into the too hard basket.
Similarly, Shriver talks convincingly and astutely of the differences between private and public images, explaining body image partially as a bi-product of flawed perception. Pandora does not recognize herself in photographs, as her own view of self is so different to the black and white starkness of a print. She writes: “I do not, under normal circumstances feel seen. When I walk down the street, my experience is of looking. Manifest to myself in the ethereal privacy of my head, I grow alarmed when presented with the evidence of my public body… In the main I fail utterly to recognize myself , the me of me, in my photographs…The body…is mine. …But it is an avatar”. The self in the head therefore distorts the reality of the self in the mirror.
Shriver accurately pinpoints the hypocrisy of an image-obsessed culture, which equates thinness with success and happiness and is highly prejudiced towards the overweight, whilst dishing out cooking show after cooking show on primetime TV. There is, Shriver suggests, something sick and twisted in these conflicting forces, summed up in this vow Pandora and Edison make during their retreat.
I pledge aversion to the flab
Of the derided waists of America,
And to the repulsion for which it stands,
One nation, underweight, practically invisible,
With misery and smugness for all.
Shriver doesn’t find answers for the questions she raises, but by holding up a mirror to society, she makes us look at obesity in a new, more compassionate light. Whatever the shortcomings of Big Brother, this is a lasting take-home message.