When I asked Harper Collins for an advance copy of Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver, I thought it might have something to do with the post-1984 world, but this novel is only obliquely about who is watching you. It’s about how we look at someone’s body size and jump to conclusions. It’s about how we think so much about food and enjoy it so little. It’s about an ascetic who finds out that her brother has become a glutton, and the lengths she will go to in order to “help” him lose 170 pounds.
Dieting is something I know about. My first experience of it was at six months old, when a pediatrician told my mother I was too fat and that she must start me on low-fat milk. When I was a child, my eating was continually commented on and restricted. At the age of 12, I started skipping lunch. Here are the ages at which I succeeded in losing a significant amount of weight, 50 pounds or more: 15, 19, 29, 37, 50.
During the past year, I gained back 70 of the most recent 80 pounds I had lost. I see people look at me and assume that I’m weak-willed and probably not very smart, when I am actually one of the most strong-willed people you will ever meet, and I’ve read and thought about most of the books about eating and dieting that have been published in my lifetime. Many of them were from the library, but here’s a sample of the ones I found when I looked around my house:
Fat Is a Feminist Issue I and II, Susie Orbach. On Eating, Susie Orbach. The Beck Diet Solution, Judith Beck. Weight Watchers’ Complete Food Companion. The Philosopher’s Diet, Richard Watson. The Joy Diet, Martha Beck. The Four Day Win, Martha Beck. The Stress-Eating Cure, Rachael and Richard Heller. The Secret Is Out, Lisa Davis and Bradley MacDonald. 100 Days of Weight Loss, Linda Spangle. The New Me Diet, Jade and Keoni Teta. Also many books about eating, like Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Critser’s Fat Land, and Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food.
Only rarely am I not thinking about how to control my eating, which evidently puts me in the majority according to the New York Times (I found the article from this humorous overview at Cracked.com). Most adults move up and down what I call the spectrum of food thoughts over their lifetimes, from “trying not to eat” to “eating when hungry.” The middle part takes the most thought, as my chart shows:
Because staying in the middle takes so much thought, there are people who slide off on either side, giving up by either trying to eliminate the need for eating entirely or eating everything without regard for the future.
Big Brother is the first novel I’ve ever read that goes clear from one end to the other of the spectrum of food thoughts. The protagonist, a woman named Pandora, starts out by realizing “I’d come to squander an appalling proportion of my mental time on empty vows to cut down to one meal a day, or on fruitless self-castigation over a second stuffed pepper at lunch. Surely on some unconscious, high-frequency level, other people could hear the squeal of this humiliating hamster wheel in my head, a piercing shrill that emitted from every other woman I passed in the aisles of Hy-Vee.”
This is an issue that Lionel Shriver has evidently spent a good bit of her time pondering. In the linked article, she sounds very much like her character Pandora, who worries on the morning after her brother Edison’s arrival because “no one…had addressed my brother’s dimensions head-on. I myself had not once alluded to Edison’s weight to his face, and as a consequence felt slightly insane. That is, I pick him up at the airport and he is so—he is so FAT that I look straight at him and don’t recognize my own brother, and now we’re all acting as if this is totally ordinary. The decorousness, the conversational looking the other way, made me feel a fraud and a liar, and the diplomacy felt complicit.”
Shriver does get some things right about the desire to get fat, but always insists that the longing for a grand gesture must be mixed with an impulse towards suicide: “his appetite for Cinnabons and suicide alike, his insistence on building his life along such drastic lines that thinking big had manifested itself in his proportions.” In order to make Pandora seem more sympathetic she gives her an even more ascetic husband who “did experience Edison’s overeating as a form of assault.” Whenever I started to pull away from the story, Pandora would say something so full of insight that I would be pulled right back in:
“Confronting a photograph of oneself is always a fraught business, for one’s own image doesn’t merely evoke the trivial fretting of ‘I had no idea my nose was so big.’ This sounds idiotic, but every time I see a picture of myself I am shocked to have been seen. I do not, under ordinary 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 evidence of my public body. This is quite a different matter from whatever dissatisfaction I may harbor over the heft of my ass. It is more a matter of having an ass, any ass, that other people can ogle, criticize, or grasp, and being staggered that to others this formation, whatever its shape, has something to do with me.”
I would suggest that people who get very fat are even more prone to this kind of thinking than thinner people are; there’s a sense that you must get very big to be regarded at all. As Edison himself observes, later, about being fat, “when you walk down the street, it’s all people see. You big as a house, but in any meaningful way you’re invisible.”
Pandora believes that a person who thinks too much about food has to find a way to stop, like an alcoholic reaches a point where he has to go to AA. When Pandora gets Edison to admit that nothing besides eating gives him pleasure, she “wondered if that wasn’t the answer to the mystery, countrywide. It wasn’t that eating was so great—it wasn’t—but that nothing was great. Eating being merely okay still put it head and shoulders above everything else that was decidedly less than okay. In which case I was surrounded by millions of people incapable of deriving pleasure from anything whatsoever besides a jelly doughnut.”
This strikes me as a privileged point of view–lots of things give me pleasure, but few of them are available for less than $2, the price of a jelly doughnut at the local Tim Horton’s.
Because of her privileged position, Pandora can afford to put herself and Edison on a liquid-only diet for months, and even rent an apartment where they won’t be confronted with the need to prepare or socialize over food. When she has lost all the extra weight she can afford to lose, though, Pandora panics when she has to learn how to eat again, and says
“I wasn’t alone in this hysteria. You could see the same frenzy all over the Internet: diatribes about sugar, clever tips about using tiny plates or drinking lots of water, profiles on celebrities who claim to have ‘eighty meals a day,’ the charts listing the glycemic index of parsnips and potatoes. You could see it in the accelerating demand for extra-wide caskets, roller coasters reinforced with I-beams, and elevators redesigned to carry twice the load. You could see it in burgeoning retail sales for ‘bountiful’ apparel, in the return of the corset. You could see it in the market for airline seat-belt extenders….”
Have any of you ever seen anyone ask for a seat-belt extender? I’ve seen (and been among) a number of people who quietly pretend to fasten it, rather than single themselves out any further.
There’s a surprising reversal at the end of the novel, a might-have-been scenario that the author says is written out of pain and guilt over what she failed to do for her own brother. I think she should feel less guilt; losing weight isn’t just about “becoming more attractive or less prone to diabetes” but about finding ways to control yourself, and other adults can’t help you with that. The fictional brother “proved it possible to reverse the most nefarious of misfortunes: those that you’ve authored yourself.” Shriver’s real brother evidently did not reverse them, and I don’t think there’s much she or anyone could have done to help that process along.
I’m not suggesting that she couldn’t have tried, or that the discouraging studies mean that no one should work on ways to take off weight that makes them physically unable to do things they want to do. Anyone who is fighting to keep their weight from going out of control always has to spend a lot of time somewhere on the spectrum of food thoughts, weighing, planning, and selecting, People who have been fat can’t quit eating entirely for the rest of their lives, nor can those people ever eat when hungry again, because they’re almost always hungry. The hardest thing to do is not to go overboard, to enjoy a measured amount of food day in and day out without having to demonize it.
Shriver’s novel shows extreme behavior on either end of the spectrum, the places where people stray so far from being able to enjoy human interaction over food that they isolate themselves. It’s a warning sign for an individual to want to eat alone. The novel is trying to show that it’s a warning sign for a society, too. How many of us eat alone, before or after occasions for eating with other people? Our stacks of diet books tell us to “eat just a little before” so we can keep control when faced with party food, but how many of us keep better control over our desire for food when other people are watching?