[28 August 2013]
Lionel Shriver’s latest novel takes on America’s weight problem in the personification of Edison Appaloosa, beloved older brother of protagonist Pandora Halfdanarson. Edison, a jazz pianist based in New York City, has always lived an edgier lifestyle than his more staid sister, self-described “white rice”: “I have always existed to set off more exciting fare. I was a foil as a girl. I am a foil now.”
The aptly named Pandora underestimates herself enormously. A self-made businesswoman, she lacks her brother’s musical talent, but she’s hardworking, creative, and resultantly well-off. In keeping with the food-themed novel, she ran a catering business for 11 years, then switched after a novelty item became a cash cow. For a fee, customers can send photographs, tape recordings, and a list of phrases a friend or loved one uses repeatedly, and Pandora’s company, Baby Monotonous, will craft a doll in that individual’s likeness, down to the beloved leather jacket or unique eyeglasses. Baby Monotonous dolls are work-intensive and expensive; nobody is more surprised than Pandora when they take off.
Yet Pandora downplays her success. Despite growing press and a small measure of fame, Pandora is happy to stay at home in New Holland, Iowa, the middle of nowhere. Having grown up in Los Angeles, where father Travis acted in a Brady Bunch-like television series, Pandora never tires of the rolling cornfields. She’s no Pollyanna, oblivious to Iowa’s growing troubles with methamphetamines, immigration issues, and an intolerant political/religious right wing. Yet she has found a husband, Fletcher, and, improbably enough, loving stepchildren in 13–year-old Cody and 17-year-old Tanner. She’s made a life for herself. Pandora is content.
* * *
Shriver often uses autobiography as starting points for her novels. The Post-Birthday World arose from her need to choose between two perfectly good men. So Much for That, published in 2010, is a harrowing look at America’s abysmal lack of nationalized health care. One of the characters, Glynis, is dying of abdominal mesothelioma. One Shriver’s best friends died from the same cancer.
Big Brother’s Edison is a fictionalized Greg Shriver, Lionel’s elder brother, who died of his weight—approximately 392 pounds on a 5’7 frame—at age 56. Prior to his death, Greg suffered severe weight-related health issues. When an infection landed him in the hospital, he recovered and was slated for gastric bypass surgery. As his medical proxy, Lionel received a telephone call from her brother’s doctor at her London home, explaining Greg would require months of in-home, post-surgical care. Greg lived in New York City; Lionel would have to relocate to care for him.
In the Daily Mail article, “My brother ate himself to death - and I will never get over the guilt”, Shriver describes listening to the doctor in horror (22 May 2013). She adores Greg, but she doesn’t want to leave her or husband busy life to care for this difficult, troubled man. The quandary is resolved when Greg suddenly falls ill again and dies; Big Brother is born.
Big Brother is a fantasy intervention: what might have been had Lionel Shriver flown to New York, barricaded Greg in a room, and forced him to diet. It’s a look into the closed world of siblings, a place of safety, shared memories, in-jokes, and blunt honesty. Big Brother is also a thoughtful examination of “what is killing my country”— morbid obesity.
Yet for all this, Big Brother is not one of Shriver’s strongest books. Never one to shy away from strong social issues—this is the woman who wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin—Big Brother is surprisingly…thin. No pun intended. The plot turns on a trick, which is a plot spoiler, and although Shriver pulls it off—the woman is incapable of poor writing—until it resolves, the reader is left wondering at Pandora’s choices.
* * *
Shriver has always been an insightful commentator on American societal mores. Here she is on food, barely into the book:
I propose: food is by nature elusive… food is the idea (italics Shriver’s) of satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself… Not irresistible tastiness but 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.
And this, in part, is why Americans are eating themselves to death. Elsewhere, Shriver notes the lack of pleasure in American’s lives—so they turn to food, a sure bet in an unhappy existence.
Pandora herself is not immune. While working as a caterer, constantly on her feet, surrounded by mountains of food, she grew thin. Now, sedentary at Baby Monotonous, Pandora has gained has about 20 pounds. She isn’t sure of the precise number: she cannot bring herself to step on the scale.
Husband Fletcher is reminiscent of The Post-Birthday World’s Lawrence Trainer. In The Post-Birthday World, protagonist Irina McGovern moves between the rigidly self-controlled Lawrence and the more sensual Ramsay Acton. Neither Lawrence nor Fletcher are especially likable characters, which isn’t a bad thing. Plenty of real people aren’t especially likeable characters, and they marry all the time. Lawrence and Fletcher are both rigid men masking vulnerability.
While each man fusses over weight, Fletcher is a fanatic, all but living on brown rice, broccoli, and dry toast. Whenever Pandora bakes a cake or pie, she slices a tiny piece, and in a bizarre marital ritual, sets it out on a fine china plate with a silver fork. Fletcher then comes into the kitchen, alone, and furtively “sneaks” this one bite.
Pandora is the serious wage-earner in the family, wryly observing they live in a “McMansion”. Fletcher, who worked for Monsanto, was able to leave his position to pursue his passion, building fine custom furnishings, when Baby Monotonous took off.
Unfortunately, there is little market for pricey if lovely handmade furniture in Iowa, and business is languishing. Fletcher’s basement workshop is filled with furniture and rare woods, while their bland home serves as a perfect backdrop for his magnificent creations. The couple are able to tiptoe around this disparity until Slack Muncie, fellow jazz musician, telephones from New York. Slack is tired of Edison crashing on his couch. He asks Pandora for help.
There is a problem: Fletcher loathes Edison. Pandora makes her case: Edison is between gigs, a European tour is coming up, they have a guest room. Fletcher grudgingly agrees to put Edison up. Pandora, who hasn’t seen Edison in four years, drives to Cedar Rapids Airport and is stunned.
The once-handsome Edison has become unrecognizable. He is wheeled off the airplane: walking will simply take too long for a man of his girth.
Edison’s arrival at and stay at the Feuerbach home are disastrous. An insensitive houseguest, Edison literally eats everything edible in the family kitchen without a thought to cost or what others might want or need. His cooking projects use up everything, and he leaves the kitchen a shambles. Perhaps worst of all, he thoughtlessly sits on delicate, irreplaceable furnishings intended to support individuals half his size, then denies having broken anything. A heavy smoker, he sneaks cigarettes indoors as the weather cools.
Crisis hits when he admits there is no European tour. Pandora takes a drastic step, moving out of the family home into an apartment with Edison, intent on slimming him down.
Fletcher is enraged. Their marriage founders. Tanner becomes truant. Only Cody, a shy, sweet girl who studies piano, makes any effort to bond with “Uncle Edison”, asking for piano lessons and visiting the apartment where Pandora has joined her brother on a liquid diet.
It is here that the siblings establish an odd relationship. Their childhood closeness is re-established, and in return for sacrificing her married life, Pandora demands an explanation. She wants to know how her successful, handsome, lady-killing brother ballooned to 386 pounds. Edison tells all, yet it’s difficult to feel sympathy for a man who pulls his sister from her family life without a backward look. Pandora, in turn, also steps on the scale, and is shocked by the number she sees. Yes, she reassures herself, it’s just a number, and a number doesn’t equal being a good wife and mother, a good sister, a successful businesswoman. Right.
As the pair adjust and the pounds come off, Pandora returns to Baby Monotonous, Edison in tow. The fingers that are so deft on keyboards are soon put to work sewing dolls. For a time the two live in fantasy world, a Hansel and Gretel without the gingerbread cottage.
Reality impinges in the form of family members—their father, Travis, self-centered and unkind, their sister, Solstice, a Los Angeles publicist whom both mock, and Fletcher, whose icy rage at Pandora’s departure only increases. Dislikable as Fletcher may be, Pandora misses him, their home, the kids, and the reader wonders at her departure. Even as Fletcher threatens divorce, it’s hard to understand how Edison, who worships his sister, could so easily destroy her marriage. Fletcher wonders why Pandora doesn’t set Edison up in an apartment with an allowance and a job at Baby Monotonous, where he’s become a popular employee. The reader does, too.
Pandora, having far less to lose, reaches her goal weight—indeed, she becomes gravely underweight—before Edison, and returns to solid food, something she describes as a surprising non-event.
What I remember about the return to solids was disappointment. I’d built up proper meals into such bliss that once I started eating again I found food bewilderingly commonplace… a chicken breast was a chicken breast. It didn’t take long to polish off, and whether it was dressed up with a little pesto or Thai curry sauce was neither here nor there.
Having shed 54 pounds, Pandora strips and appraises her naked, 40-something self. The result? “It was relief to no longer feel ashamed, and that was probably the most intense emotion my new body stirred: a not-emotion.”
Later: “Yet even this satisfaction (being thinner) was mild. A slender figure therefore joined career success in its so-whatness.”
There’s little else I can write without spoiling the plot, except to observe, ironically, that Lionel Shriver is nothing like Pandora. In the many interviews and stories publicizing Big Brother, ample space is given to Shriver’s lithe figure, heavy exercise regimen, and spartan diet. Shriver eats once daily. She’s quick to say she doesn’t recommend her diet for all, merely that it works for her, and indeed, Shriver resembles a ballerina.
I’m not criticizing Shriver, who uses every opportunity to preach against fat discrimination. If anything, her ability to create a Pandora while being the opposite is testimony to the depths of her talent and sorrow of her loss. If Big Brother lacks the complexity of Shriver’s finest works, it’s still a bracing commentary on nothing less than a national health emergency. If you don’t believe me and live in the United States, go anywhere—a mall, a market, a parking lot—and take a good long look at your fellow citizens. Don’t judge unkindly: nobody asks to be fat. Then read this book.