From the perspective of the weight-gainer, there’s something socially bizarre about getting fat. About facing, day in and day out, acquaintances for whom fat is a culturally endorsed obsession and yet still a conversational taboo. Next to sex, size might be the thing we think about the most in general and talk about the least in mixed company. Which makes gaining weight, for the gainer, sort of like dyeing an inch of your hair pink each month, both hoping and resenting that no one will mention it. That is, if pink hair could be mitigated by Spanx.
Big Brother is excellently concerned with this and other facets of the American obesity epidemic. The novel is centered on Pandora Halfdanarson, a married stepmother of two who has spent the last few years running a successful business while also settling into the trivial stalemates of a stable marriage (she’s gained weight; her husband Fletcher has become a fitness fanatic). Strapped for cash and in between jazz gigs, Pandora’s older brother Edison comes to stay with her, but when he arrives at the airport, Pandora doesn’t recognize him. Since they last saw each other, Edison has grown from a longstanding 160 pounds to nearly 400; the flight attendants insist on rolling him out in a wheelchair.
While Pandora tries to process her brother’s transformation, Edison’s presence takes its toll on the household. His weight becomes a frequent topic of conversation when he’s not around, even as Pandora neglects to raise the subject with her brother directly. More than anything, Edison’s lack of self-control and command of Pandora’s attention grates on Fletcher, and after a last-straw argument between them, Fletcher tells Pandora she must choose: her brother or her family. Offended by the ultimatum, and afraid for Edison’s life, Pandora decides to move them into an apartment, where she can focus exclusively on helping him shed the weight.
In the interest of full disclosure, it would be safe to say that I, like Edison, have spent the better part of the last five years gaining weight (though fortunately the better part of 2014 running off hard-won amounts of it). Since college, I’ve added to my person the veritable equivalent of four toddlers, and have slowly “upgraded” my wardrobe to include at least 27 shapeless blouse-tents. There’s a consistent 80% chance that I’m wearing some sort of spandex product, and I relate to Louis CK’s bit about putting on socks more than I care to admit.
As the conventional wisdom goes, gaining weight is the easy part. Food is delicious; exercise is tedious. Sitting is easy; running is hard. Pizza tastes better than salad; chocolate tastes better than not chocolate. But if gaining weight is a cake walk (mmm cake), being fat is the reckoning, the public-facing evidence of one’s primary vice. “Prefers cream-based pasta sauces!” my body shouts on my behalf. “Looks awkward attempting yoga! Has a complicated relationship with ice cream serving sizes! Once literally fell and could not get up!”
Indeed, given the inherent obviousness of weight gain (putting food on par with meth for “least discreet habits”), being fat is a unique exercise in loving/hating oneself enough each day to walk past the bakery and into the gym, or to order a burger at dinner and not wonder if everyone’s thinking “Now is that the best choice?” Being overweight is something you loathe talking about, but also feel compelled to mention first, preferably with a joke at your own expense. It’s also something you don’t entirely realize is happening until you find yourself earnestly explaining to a Target team member that XXL and 2XL are actually different sizes.
There’s a lot to appreciate about Big Brother’s treatment of obesity. Edison’s reluctant disclosures about his weight gain are heartbreaking, and his combination defensiveness/desperation is completely on point. But Big Brother is perhaps most perfectly concerned with the outsized role weight, and food, play in the American psyche. “You couldn’t help but wonder,” Pandora muses. “What earthly good was a microprocessor, a space telescope or a particle accelerator, when we had mislaid the most animal of masteries. Why bother to discover the Higgs boson or solve the economics of hydrogen-powered cars? We no longer knew how to eat.”
BB does little to address the food industry, and the weird dichotomy of a country whose citizens are getting their stomachs surgically downsized while KFC makes sandwiches that use chicken cutlets for bread. But the novel isn’t supposed to be a manifesto against the commercial culprits in the battle against our own waistlines. It’s mostly about us, about what makes some of us eat too much, and what makes some of us so attuned to—and sometimes affronted by—others’ tendency to overindulge. Says Pandora:
“Ever since Edison gave me cause to, I’ve made a study of the hierarchy of apprehensions when laying eyes on another person. Once a form emerges from the distance that is clearly a human and not a lamppost, we now log (1) gender, (2) size. …I do not believe ‘size’ has always been number two, yet these days I am apt to register that a figure is slight or fat even before I pick up a nanosecond later that they are white, Hispanic, or black. 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.”
When it comes to our collective perception of weight, Shriver is flawless and—as usual—her writing is so eloquent that I want to meet her, hug her and then remove her brain and steal it for personal use. She also nails the interpersonal tension caused by obesity’s health implications. Pandora says Edison’s eating candy gets her “agitated, no less so than if he’d carved himself with a razor blade in plain view.” After catching him on the tail end of a pizza, she says it would “have been less upsetting to have interrupted you snorting cocaine.” Meanwhile, Fletcher extrapolates from Edison’s weight a sort of moral failing. “Look, man, I know I’m fat,” Edison tells him during one of their arguments. “But the way you say it, it’s like I’m scum. It’s not a description but 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.”
One need not be overweight to enjoy Big Brother (any more than one need be a teen murderer to appreciate We Need to Talk About Kevin). But if you happen to own something whose size includes an X (not you, XS) then BB is, in a strange way, both tragic and comforting to read. Shriver has a way of exploring human flaws that makes me feel both demoralized by her insights and privileged to have read them. If she wrote a novel about getting punched in the face, I’d feel half-compelled to let someone take a swing at me just to appreciate it more.
If you’re a Shriver virgin (Shrivirgin, if you will) I recommend starting with The Post-Birthday World, then choosing between BB and Kevin, depending on how much of your week you want to spend contemplating the human condition. Shriver has swiftly and without question become one of my favorite authors, and if it wasn’t super awkward to gift people novels about school shootings, adultery or obesity, you best believe I’d be buying her books in bulk.
TITLE: Big Brother
AUTHOR: Lionel Shriver
PAGES: 400 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Post-Birthday World
SORTA LIKE: Zadie Smith writes Jennifer Weiner
FIRST LINE: “I have to wonder whether any of the true highlights of my fortysome years have had to do with food.”