[4 August 2008]
“What [people] really want is to hear that you’re miserable, as long as you’re funny or raw about it,” Stephanie Klein writes on her blog, Greek Tragedy. “Misery loves company? Not quite, but almost.”
At least she’s honest about it. Combining self-indulgence with just enough self-deprecation to appear humorously vulnerable, Klein seems to know exactly what the female psyche craves: martini glasses, smudged eyeliner, sarcasm, pink and green. She is photogenic and wants everyone to know it. She is Carrie Bradshaw with a baby. She is the blogger equivalent to a slice of cheesecake.
Keep this all in mind while reading Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp, where food analogies abound and emotional insecurity is the theme du jour. Part of a two-book deal with HarperCollins (the first being her enormously popular divorce memoir, Straight Up and Dirty), Moose sandwiches the combined catastrophes of adolescence and obesity between chapters of Klein’s present-day pregnancy. For a former “fat camp champ”—which is, sadly, not a self-imposed moniker—putting on 50 pounds of baby weight is nothing less than terrifying.
Like her blog, Klein’s writing is personal, informal, and full of clever turns of phrase and witticisms. Despite her declaration in the Author’s Note “not to tell the story of Moose in quips and witty puns because that’s not what adolescence is,” Klein’s humor is nevertheless the icing on the fat camp cake. Skinny dipping becomes “chunky dunking”, while covert camper sex in the woods is described as “two pigs fighting over a Milk Dud.” She is clever, blunt, and appropriate.
If anything, Klein’s humor enhances the awkwardness of adolescence. In the sort of lip-biting, hair-tossing, impetuous manner for which teenagers are so famous, she indirectly highlights discomfort via wit, and pairs shame with over-confidence. Electric blue mascara is just as at home with Klein’s youthful attempts to look pretty as it is with her emotional insecurity. Birthday cakes are both a celebration and a mockery.
“[The parents] were all suddenly okay with it,” Klein writes, referring to the Family Weekend feeding frenzy. “It was like receiving a cake with a file inside from the person who’d incarcerated you. And they chaperoned and enabled all of it, despite the money they’d spent, because people bonded over food. It’s what all of us knew.”
Guilt and shame are major themes in Moose, both of the self-imposed and externally-imposed variety. Klein’s over-exposure to these emotions is obvious, obsessed as she is with her own body, thoughts, and consumption. Considering how, at age eight, her mother sent her to a nutritionist—who even at her young age Klein realizes is the town “fat doctor”—the resulting obsession is not surprising.
Klein’s overall tone see-saws between humorous and heavy, but is never light-hearted. Even at her most joking, Klein’s casual references to “look[ing] like a Mallomar” and hating her “fat life” are never simple, laugh-out-loud funnies. They are complex, anxious neuroses, deeply rooted in insecurity. Even the title of the book itself—which happened to be Klein’s unfortunate nickname in high school—is at once ridiculous and humbling, a not-so-gentle reminder to all of us just how cruel children can be.
Perhaps it is cruelty—and not food, fat, or low self-esteem—that drives Moose to be more than just a simple, feel-good story of a once-fat, now-slim princess. It’s the thread that runs inside all of Klein’s endeavors, from making friends to the “Hate Diet”, a weight-loss strategy that fuels itself on anger instead of calorie-free soda. Though Camp Yanisin (“Fit Camp”) is the focus of Klein’s novel, she digresses enough to show readers the role cruelty has played in all areas of her young adult life. From abusive family members to eating disorders to masturbation (watch out, it’s more graphic than you might think), Klein introduces us to her real, raw self, whether or not we would like to see it.
It is in this respect that her background as a blogger is fairly obvious—nothing is too obscene to include, and she writes as if each chapter were a letter to a best friend. I suspect Klein might have included pictures and sidebars of related links if her editor would have permitted it.
While there is nothing wrong with fusing blog and book, the last few chapters of Moose take on the tone of a completely different blogger. Alternately bitter and nostalgic, still eloquent but bordering on rage, Klein reviews her past relationships as an adult through the lens of one who has just recently understood the whys and hows of her own behavior. She writes with cool, collected disappointment, effectively bursting the humorously rotund bubble she had so patiently crafted throughout Moose.
“I spent my whole single life trying to be thin just to find someone who’d love me once I got fat,” Klein writes post-fat camp, at age 29. But what are we to expect? Readers are explicitly warned that Moose is not a book about “accepting yourself as you are, embracing life as a fat girl.” There is no happy ending, no eye-opening truths. The best Klein can offer us is a change of perspective: that like beauty, fatness is in the eye of the beholder.
“I ask my husband the question no man likes to answer: ‘Do I look fat?’ … But naked in bed, I can sometimes remind myself, people really don’t look at me the way I look at me. And thank God.”