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Tackling the big issues: Lionel Shriver writes fat


shriver                          big

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.



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All men are islands: Michelle de Kretser revisited


Questions of Travel, by Michelle de Kretser

Published by: Allen & Unwin, $39.99

It’s no secret that I am a huge Michelle de Kretser fan, and would love to see Questions of Travel win the Miles Franklin Award this year. De Kretser is the bridesmaid of literary fiction, and though she’s won many prizes, has been passed over for major awards like the Man Booker and what used to be known as the Orange.  What I love about her work is the scope of her literary landscapes. She tracks down concepts, themes and ideas like a hungry hunter; satirical one moment, reflective the next, her prose is witty and elegant, her characterisations delve deep. And she respects her readers, offering them intelligent observations that make them think and question long-held values and assertions.

Questions of Travel was extensively reviewed when it appeared last year. The lives of its central characters, Ravi, who seeks asylum in Australia, and Laura, a compulsive nomad, are set out in dual, episodic narratives, each covering a similar timeline.  Laura travels the world, first just another Australian backpacker seeking new experiences, and then with increased emotional disconnectedness; Ravi longs to see the world and escape from the instability of war-torn Sri Lanka. Their life paths cross briefly when IT specialist Ravi and editor Laura work at the same travel publishing company in Sydney, then just as quickly spring apart. And though both experience the death of loved ones, longing and loneliness, this is not a conventional love story. So what is Questions of Travel about?

What strikes me on reading the reviews is that the novel resonates in many ways. For some it is a musing on the differences between the Third World and Australia; some approach it as an exploration on the nature of travel itself: does travel broaden the mind and our connectedness to others or simply reinforce cultural stereotypes? Others believe the work dissects changing patterns of society from the 1960s to 2004.

It is all of those things, of course, and more. The book’s two, seemingly contradictory, epigraphs offer a clue. The first is taken from a 1956 poem by Elizabeth Bishop: “But surely it would have been a pity/not to have seen the trees along the road/really exaggerated in their beauty.”  The second, from EM Forster’s Howard’s End: “Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle.”

De Kretser seems to favour an anti-pastoral, anti-Romantic view – arguing that the spectacular wonders of the world can be appreciated from a distance but offer little consolation in the ebb and flux of contemporary life. The expanse of the novel and its motley collection of characters, uncovers  violence, terrorism and murder, the plight of refugees, the  shallowness of modern sexual relationships, the snide humour of office politics. In London, Laura falls in love with Theo, a quintessential Romantic, the gay, self-destructive  son of German refugees who surrounds himself with kitsch objets trouvés and faux antiques, as a barricade against the passing years. In Sri Lanka and Australia, Ravi meets fellow-countrymen whose ambition and drive harness the Internet for commercial success.

It is within the world wide web that history and geography finally meet: arguably the most spectacular technological development of the 20th century, the Internet facilitates extraordinary freedom for virtual travel across time and space – yet its pathways are littered with abandoned websites, forgotten blogs and the flotsam and jetsam of dotcom failed start-ups. Questions of Travel suggests that our individual flight paths are equally littered with the debris of the human heart.

Read it: for intelligent, multi-layered narrative and superbly crafted prose.