The novel is a gesture art. We don’t need to know more about Mr Bingley’s body than that he’s ‘wonderfully handsome’, or (at first) that Hans Castorp looks like ‘an ordinary young man’. We couldn’t describe them to a police sketch artist and expect to get anything back. Gatsby, first spotted, is ‘standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr Gatsby himself’ – that’s it – while Daisy’s face is ‘sad and lovely with bright things in it’. We project, we fill in. Some writers hardly seem to give their characters bodies at all, or can’t make up their minds about them: Emma Bovary’s eyes are black in one chapter, in other chapters brown or blue.
Lionel Shriver rarely lingers over physical descriptions, with one great exception: she’s highly conscious of how much her characters weigh. Her most famous novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin, is arranged as a series of letters written by the narrator to her husband, who ‘weighed in at a pretty standard 165, 170’. Previous novels are populated by a ‘210-pound bass player’ and a man who ‘loses a hundred pounds in six months’. Others ‘added five pounds’, ‘weighs little over a hundred pounds’, ‘dumped his full 160 pounds’, is ‘238 pounds by the age of 15’. A woman ‘might have looked presentable if she had lost 20 pounds’, another is ‘at most 108 pounds’. Adjectives – ‘svelte’, ‘corpulent’, ‘broad-framed’, ‘wiry’ – must seem imprecise to Shriver. And if readers find it difficult to translate numbers into mental pictures, that’s not her concern.
In her new book, Big Brother, the narrator (168 pounds) decides that ‘in fiction, authors who do not immediately identify roughly how much a character weighs are not doing their jobs.’ So important is body-weight to how people navigate the world, so critical to how they’re seen by others, that ignoring it is an omission tantamount to ignoring gender – maybe even worse, since, in real life, ‘especially when the subject in question is on the large side, many of us probably detect “on the large side” even before determining large person of which sex.’ As Jane Austen is to wealth – telling us precisely how much Mr Darcy gets a year – so Shriver is to weight.
Shriver lives in London, but this book is set in Iowa, in the middle of farm country, where much of America’s food is grown, and so the source of its woe. ‘You couldn’t help but wonder what earthly good was a microprocessor, a space telescope, or a particle accelerator, when we had mislaid the most animal of masteries’ – namely, how to eat. Americans are now ‘so consistently broad of backside, round of shoulder, stout of leg and plump of bicep that we might all be trooping across a canvas by Fernando Botero.’ They’re in need of ‘Big John’ toilet seats, ‘800-pound-rated shower chairs, and “LuvSeats” for couples of size to have sex’. Pandora Halfdanarson, who wants to lose ‘at least 20 pounds’, is unable to recognise her brother, Edison, when she picks him up at the airport, so fat has he become in the few years since she saw him last. Once weighing in ‘at about 165,’ he has more than doubled himself. There isn’t a medical explanation: he eats because he likes to eat, and world weariness has made him ‘incapable of deriving pleasure from anything whatsoever besides a jelly doughnut’. As if she were directing a horror film, Shriver at first refrains from describing Edison directly, but we know he must look horrible because disembarking passengers complain at having had to sit next to him, and because Pandora has ‘to look away because it was rude to stare, and even ruder to cry’.
The narration is disgusted by Edison – a particularly gruesome scene has him covering Pandora’s bathroom in shit (even his turds are too big) – while also decrying those who would avoid him: ‘Like I’m scum. It’s not a description, it’s a verdict. Like I’m an abomination, the source of all evil and corruption in the universe. I eat too much, but I ain’t murdered anybody. I ain’t no paedophile.’ Restaurants hide him in the back, landlords don’t want him for a tenant. Sexual partners are out of the question. Of course Shriver’s not wrong about fat-shaming, even as much of this book can seem like an instance of it. Doctors are nicer to thin patients; fat women lose out on jobs to the less qualified. Even more subtle novelists than Shriver love their thin characters most: Henry James signals that Mamie Pocock, the most eligible girl in Woollett, Massachusetts will not be the heroine of The Ambassadors when Strether realises that ‘Mamie would be fat, too fat, at thirty.’ Pandora loves her brother because she knew him before he became repulsive: ‘I was dismayed that my brother’s size seemed to be all that people saw. I wanted to object, but his mind is not fat, his soul is not fat, his past is not fat and his piano playing isn’t fat, either.’ Hate the fat, love the eater. Pandora decides that Edison will return to his old weight if she devotes herself to him, becomes his ‘coach’ and monitors everything he eats. She expects it to take a year. But her husband, an only child unable to appreciate the importance of the sibling bond, threatens to divorce her if she neglects him in Edison’s favour. In this schematic novel, the jealous husband is of course a fitness fanatic; only small amounts of brown rice and broccoli pass his lips. He designs beautiful, fragile chairs – the most precious of which must, inevitably, be broken by his fatso brother-in-law.
Shriver’s previous novels – about terrorism, healthcare, over-population – are similarly topical, in keeping with Shriver’s other career as a commentator for radio and magazines. But where We Need to Talk about Kevin is stuffed, even over-stuffed, with observations of places and people, little is allowed in Big Brother that doesn’t illustrate or lead to a point about American obesity. Pandora herself is a cipher, and plausibility is jettisoned when she accepts the consequences of bringing her brother down to size, husband, stepchildren and livelihood be damned. Antigone has nothing on her. Like the protagonist of We Need to Talk about Kevin, Pandora is meant to be seen as a highly competent self-made businesswoman. In We Need to Talk about Kevin the narrator is profiled in Fortune magazine; here it’s a cover story for New York Magazine. Yet Pandora has no trouble taking leave from her doll company. Brother and sister rent an apartment together and go on a liquid diet. They dance, ride bikes. Edison learns to make himself happy even when he’s not chewing. The pounds come off. If only it were so easy! A heavily signposted twist at the end acknowledges that it isn’t usually, since few sisters can be as generous as Pandora.
Shriver has written, in the right-wing magazine Standpoint, about her exasperation with the overweight: ‘people don’t avoid vegetables out of ignorance; they don’t want to eat vegetables. No law can impart the discipline to not eat a cupcake.’ But do cupcakes – and fizzy drinks, and crisps, and sweets – have to be quite so bad for us, and quite so irresistible? A recent New York Times investigation into the practices of Big Food (‘The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food’, by Michael Moss) shows the largest food conglomerates engaged in a ‘hyper-engineered, savagely marketed, addiction-creating battle for “stomach share”’. Forget the cupcakes: yoghurt and spaghetti sauces, packaged to look like healthy options, often have just as much sugar. Millions of dollars are spent trying to find their ‘bliss point’ – the optimal amount of sweetness or fat that causes pleasure – without regard for anyone’s health. When the Finnish government required that every grocery item heavy in salt be marked with the warning ‘High Salt Content’, Finland’s per capita salt consumption dropped by a third. Improved access to medical care and a vigorous public education campaign was rewarded with a 75 to 80 per cent drop in deaths from strokes and heart disease.
The solution Shriver proposes in Big Brother (and, in almost identical terms, in publicity interviews), as though it were unusual, is willpower:
I held up a tiny piece of walnut bread … ‘Really think about it,’ I commended. ‘About what it is. About what it isn’t. About what you get out of it. And try to store up the memory for later. So you can reference the flavour. So much of eating is anticipation. Rehearsal and then memory. Theoretically you should be able to eat almost entirely in your head.’
‘Too deep for me little sister.’
All the same, he did as I asked.
Shriver’s brother, to whom the book is dedicated, was obese and died in his fifties of respiratory failure. She didn’t help him lose weight: ‘Why didn’t I talk to him more forcefully about the perilous state of his health?’ Big Brother is an ‘alternative-reality fairy tale’ in which Shriver reconstructs the past. ‘My brother’s situation,’ she told the literary tourists at Hay, ‘broke my heart. This book tried to do something good with something bad that happened in my life. This is what fiction writers do.’ Maybe. But fiction writers are supposed to do other things too.