Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Big Brother: Using the Word Fat

But what, or rather who, is the skinny? By conceit, the rail-thin are harsh, joyless, and critical....They don't know how to have a good time, and don't hesitate to poop your party, too. Scrawnies are superior, haughty, and elitist.  Vain, self-centered, and cold. Picky. Stingy and withholding. Aloof. Uptight.  Judgmental and condescending...Dishonest (likely to decline the offer of dessert because of feeling "far too full"), and insincere ("You look terrific!").  Nasty, although usually behind your back. Fearful, not only of food but also of people who eat it, as if libertinism might be contagious.

--Lionel Shriver, Big Brother

Pandora, the protaganist of the deeply affecting novel Big Brother, lives in Iowa with her cycling-obsessed husband, who has recently repudiated cheese, and their two stepchildren, whose mother, now stage left, is a meth addict.  Pandora has, surprisingly to her--and, it turns out, her family of origin--made a business success. She's forty years old and still describes herself as a little sister. Her much-adored and prodigal older brother, Edison, comes to visit, as he's fallen on hard times.  While waiting at the baggage carousel, she hears a couple of strangers complaining about the fat guy who was beside them.  "What gets me, is we all get the same baggage allowances.  Our friend in aisle seventeen was packing a quarter ton in carry-on. I swear, next time they try to charge me extra because one pair of shoes has pushed me over twenty-six pounds, I'm going to offer to eat them." Turns out the fella who gets wheeled off the plane is her big brother, who has grown to twice his size in a few short years. 

What follows is a family dynamic between siblings who've endured an odd childhood where they competed with their screenwriter father's versions of themselves on a sitcom.  Edison fashioned himself into a promising young jazz talent--except now he's forty-two--and Pandora has done her best to fade into the woodwork.  Like many who peak too early, Edison has now crashed and is in the grips of what can only be called an addiction.  Pandora has come to success in middle age and, consequently, grapples with a towering imposter syndrome.

Shriver deals bravely with possibly the most emotionally-charged issue of the era facing the developed world.  "Whenever I encounter a picture of myself, the first thing I assess is my weight," confesses Pandora when she finally decides to confront her brother about his morbid obesity. (Shriver's own brother died of complications from his weight.) Women think about this many times a day, whether they are in the rail-thin crowd or where Edison has landed.  Men likely do, too, but are less likely to discuss it.

A chain of events leads Pandora from enabler to full-blown co-dependency.  The novel touches on serious familial subjects.  Where is the line between duty to one's blood relatives versus the person we've married?  How far must one go to save someone we love from addiction?  Pandora's husband, like me, is an only child, and I must confess I identified with him closely. And, to say the least, he uses the word "fat," and some other choice words when he lets loose.  That's when the plot blows wide open. Shriver writes a compelling story, and I now understand what drives Pandora to strive so mightily to save Edison.

Her assessment about how weight has divided our society is the most striking part of the novel.  The mean things the skinny characters say about the obese sound familiar and of course are unhelpful to their targets. Edison, for his part, isn't a terribly sympathetic character, until he lets his sister into the reasons behind his rapid expansion.  In the view of the protagonist, the very fat are cheerful, generous, harmless, and lacking pretension.

So Pandora's comments about the "scrawnies" that hit back against the collective notion that thin is better, superior, are rather brave.   "...when  I look at the lists of attributes we instinctively ascribe to the very thin and the very fat, I would rather be fat."  Like every other divide our society has faced, it will require a great deal of compassion and understanding to solve what has become the health crisis that will define our age.  

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