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Getting heavy.

May 21, 2013

No matter what percentage of mental energy you devote to thinking about food—buying it, cooking it, or eating it—the consequences of what our consumption does to our bodies is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. While we’re probably more used to seeing articles bemoaning the size of our waistlines or calling for fat acceptance, obesity has finally made the leap from fact to fiction. It seems fitting that Lionel Shriver (the woman who novelised another topical issue, school shootings, in her hugely successful 2003 breakthrough We Need to Talk About Kevin) is one of the writers to facilitate that leap. The results, as you might expect, are both provocative and compelling.

Forget any Orwellian associations conjured by the title of Shriver’s latest novel—Big Brother literally refers to the immense personage of Edison Appaloosa, jazz pianist and older brother of the book’s narrator, Pandora, an unassuming woman who’s made her fortune creating custom-made talking dolls. Pandora’s life in the Midwest (which, coincidentally, is home to some of America’s largest residents) is interrupted by an impromptu visit from Edison, whom she hasn’t seen in four years—and four years ago, Edison was hundreds of pounds lighter. When Pandora goes to pick him up from the airport and he comes off the plane in a wheelchair (‘that was just the airline being impatient. Don’t walk fast as I used to.’), she literally doesn’t recognise him.

While Edison talks long and loud about how busy he is back in New York (‘I was just glad a gap in my schedule made it possible to fit in a visit’), he seems intent on taking a sabbatical, although Pandora and her husband suspect there’s more to the story. It appears that Edison has long overstayed his welcome on a friend’s couch back East; a more likely reason for his trip to Iowa is that he has nowhere else to go. He’s also strangely resistant to going anywhere near the piano, despite the fact that he’s supposed to be on tour in just a few short weeks. And what of his size? Pandora has always looked up to her brother; now, his girth has caused his spine to compact three inches, and she can barely bring herself to look Edison in the eye.

As the two months of Edison’s stay pass—filled with cheese-laden lasagnes, gallons of coffee creamer, gargantuan pancake breakfasts, and a pantry that can never be replenished quickly enough—Pandora’s marriage comes under increasing strain. Her husband, Fletcher, an uptight furniture maker who rises at five each morning (even though, as Pandora points out, he really doesn’t need to—he’s self-employed furniture maker who works in the basement) and is obsessed with eating healthily and keeping trim, resents Edison’s presence in more ways than one. Fletcher doesn’t just not get on with Edison; he’s offended and revolted by his brother-in-law’s immense size and lack of control around food.

Eventually, when the true nature of Edison’s situation is revealed and it’s clear that he has nothing of consequence to return to in New York, Pandora must make a decision between the family she chose—her husband and Fletcher’s two children—and the family she’s tied to by blood. She realises that if she doesn’t stage some kind of intervention, Edison will eat himself to death in a ‘slow motion suicide-by-pie’. What follows is a horribly captivating account of the siblings’ year-long diet (Pandora is intent on dropping a few pounds herself) and its attendant mental and physical highs and lows. Rather paradoxically, it’s a process that’s both incredibly methodical—counting, weighing, measuring—and unpredictable, emotions, and motivations fluctuating alongside the dreaded number on the scales.

For the first several months, the pair subsist on a liquid-only diet of unfulfilling diet shakes, and it’s not long before the agony of not eating is replaced by an almost religious fervour, a crazed sense that eating is perhaps not necessary after all. It’s a depressing reminder that in our increasingly extreme and misguided attitudes towards food—from ‘the market for airline seatbelt extenders’ to ‘the prestige designation of size-zero jeans’—‘we no longer knew how to eat’. ‘You couldn’t help but wonder what earthly good was a microprocessor, a space telescope, or a particle accelerator’, Pandora reflects, ‘when we had mislaid the most animal of masteries’.

Big Brother is both a complex social commentary and an interesting family drama—not an easy balancing act to pull off, but Shriver’s sharp prose and rounded characters (pun not intended) make it an engrossing and insightful read. Although it’s a very human story, questioning the assumptions we make about people based on their size, and the limits (or lack thereof) of familial obligations, it’s situated in a particularly topical context. Everyone’s obsessed with food these days, often unintentionally; indeed, the book begins with Pandora’s observation that even though ‘for something I do every day, I can’t remember many meals in detail’, she’s spent ‘less time thinking about my husband than thinking about lunch’. Food is consuming, whether or not you’re someone of Edison’s size.

It’s also an issue particularly close to Shriver’s heart: she lost her older brother to obesity-related complications in 2009, and Big Brother is a kind of fictional exploration of what she might have tried to do for her sibling if she’d had the chance. While it’s clearly an intensely personal novel, it also raises many pertinent questions about how we live now, and the damage we do to our hearts—not simply in the medical sense—when we seek to sate our hunger.

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