Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Harper Collins

You may have noticed that the dreaded bikini season is imminent. That is according to various magazines and websites, calming us all down with their reassurances that the diet and exercise routine they have carefully cobbled together will have us sculpted and toned in time for the beach, and supported by the sun making itself known after a long absence, bringing out the first tentative displays of tights-free legs and hastily bronzed arms.

I say dreaded, as humanity has been conditioned to believe that any ounce of flesh that is reluctantly aired must bear as close to zero percent fat as possible and any more is an insult. There may be those confident few who wear their short skirts and cropped t-shirts with pride, throwing two fingers up to those who sneer at their dimpled thighs or offensively pale extremities, but that little voice that says “you’re not good enough, not beautiful enough – not perfect” is bound to creep into even the most self-assured head once in a while, be it by a literal snide-comment or the echo of an article pointing the finger at some celebrity that has “let herself go”.

If Lionel Shriver’s bestseller We need to talk about Kevin threw a light over the themes of reluctant motherhood and any parent’s worst nightmare, her latest novel, Big Brother casts a very large shadow over America’s latest and most endemic elephant in the room. Addressing obesity is the “alien (of) modern etiquette”, the subject one is not “supposed to say anything” about, but here Shriver, in her typically frank and unyielding fashion, tackles the issue that most people still don’t want to talk about in polite conversation.

Pandora is a complicated woman who has been programmed to stay out of the spotlight. Sandwiched between a gregarious, handsome and musically gifted older brother and a pretty sister who is much younger, she is the typical middle-child, the quiet and patient peacekeeper. Now in her early forties she has weathered the storm of being the daughter of a TV star whose fictional persona is a far better father than he is in reality, and the sister of Edison, a successful jazz pianist, who has made his name playing alongside some of the greats of the industry. Now married with two step-children and head of a thriving and nationally renowned business that has taken her quite by surprise, she is expecting a visit from her revered older brother, who she hasn’t set eyes on in four years. Collecting him from the airport with that curious mix of excitement and anxiety, she is expecting to see a familiar, strident figure in hi signature leather jacket and instead is shockingly faced with a very different man, one who is being maneuvered through the baggage claim in an extra-wide wheelchair.

Once home, the time has come and passed to face up to the facts regarding the overwhelming weight gain head-on, and it is only after a series of humiliating episodes towards the end of his planned two month visit that the looming and embarrassing subject can finally be addressed. 040529-fc222

The devastating effect of morbid obesity on an individual and his family is only the tip of the iceberg in this hard-hitting and uncomfortable read. Pandora’s husband Fletcher is an artisan carpenter, and her business manufacturing expensive, bespoke wind-up dolls to give as gifts to individuals who are known by their catch-phrases, called Baby Monotonous, has the means to support his not so lucrative endeavour. A traditional man in a modern world, he has issues with his wife being the main bread-winner and tries to exert some control by fanatically cycling and eating so healthily that every meal is an exercise in how to make broccoli and quinoa appealing. In retaliation Pandora allows her self and her children treats and has subsequently put on a few pounds, a little middle-age spread. With Edison staying the whole family’s attitude to food increases to another level, where each morsel in considered and contemplated. When Pandora eventually takes charge and demands that Edison embark on a punishing, demanding diet, she takes it as a good opportunity to lose the extra weight she has been becoming increasingly miserable about, while supporting him in this mountainous undertaking.

While pointing out the biggest and most obvious problem, Edison’s apparent suicide-by-food, Shriver draws attention to the notion of food as being psychologically addictive. While trying to figure out Edison’s triggers and motivation Pandora notes that “the very failure of food to reward is what drives us to eat more of it. The most sumptuous experience of ingestion is in-between: remembering the last bite and looking forward to the next one”. This drive to fill the empty space is revealed as being an easier trap to fall into than Pandora first imagined – in their joint drive to get back in healthy shape she becomes dangerously close to an eating-disorder, by re-wiring their brains to be content with subsisting on four substance shakes a day.

In a subtler yet no less pronounced way Shriver underscores other forms of addiction and their no less damaging consequences. Fletcher’s former wife is a crystal meth addict – seemingly an increasingly common “housewife problem” in the state of Iowa, a result of, yet again, a desperate attempt to lose weight and keep it off. Edison has been addicted to fame and adoration, or the notion of it, an elusive dream he has chased since childhood. Fletcher lets his obsessive keeping fit cover the real problems he is loathe to face up to.

The nature of family, both born into and married into is also a concern. Fletcher feels abandoned by his wife when she moves in with her brother to set him on the straight and narrow. Edison feels unsuppressed envy of his unassuming little sister for having surpassed his own expectations of success. Pandora feels caught between the two as far as familial responsibility is concerned. Fletcher is an only-child and can’t grasp the bond between the two siblings; his children are being raised by a stepmother and in their teenage years are acting out accordingly.

What it comes down to though, is the body-image concerns of the 21st century. People giving side-long glances at those who are too heavy; people eyeing up suspiciously those who are too thin. This superficial society that doesn’t want to see a talented but fat man playing the piano in a jazz band but that happily offers 1000 calorie cheeseburgers. The magazine that tells you that it’s alright to have “curves”, moreover you should be proud of them on one page while promoting the latest fad diet on the next.

We need to talk about Kevin was made into a successful film not long ago, sending audiences similar shock waves of terror and revulsion as the book did. I don’t expect the same thing to happen with this thoughtful, engaging and provoking treatise on an international epidemic – mass-murder being easier to face up to, less taboo, than the silent killer stalking a generation.

– Aoife B. Burke

First Published in The Tuam Herald May 9th 2013

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