Friday, 21 February 2014

'We are meant to be hungry'

Big Brother has received a lot of attention in the press for one of the issues it deals with; the problem of obesity and why overweight people find it so difficult to lose weight. In the novel, the question is made additionally challenging because Edison, the 'big brother' of the narrator, Pandora, is so obviously addicted to eating, using food to avoid dependence on drink and drugs. Pandora, worrying about her brother's health, is caught in a quandary: how far can she and should she intervene in Edison's life, and is this the only way to save him? To make the obvious point that this novel is about a lot more than BMI is not to say that it isn't interesting and provocative on this issue - it's written by Lionel Shriver, after all, so it could hardly not be. One of the most thought-provoking passages, for me, was when Pandora muses on the fact that when she walks down the street, the first thing she clocks about someone is their gender, then their weight, then their race. This intrigued me, so I tried the experiment myself: but my results weren't the same. I found that, while the first thing I notice about a person is gender, age probably comes next, closely followed by race: I don't think I tend to think about people's weights unless they are incredibly fat or worryingly skinny. I'm not suggesting that Pandora's observation is wrong: I think it demonstrates something truthful about how we pick up on the criteria that are most important to us. I spend a lot of time thinking about age (partly because of my PhD research on concepts of childhood and youth) and so that's what I tend to clock. Conversely, weight isn't something that I've ever worried about.

This might make me an unsympathetic reader for this book, which deals so closely with the constant insecurities that its characters feel about their bodies. But I found that there was a lot here that wasn't related to fatness or thinness as well. As with Liz Moore's Heft, weight works as a simple but effective metaphor for emotional baggage. Edison boasts that he's sold all his possessions and is hence free of worldly ties, but Pandora eventually discovers that the reason he had to sell everything was to fund his eating habits. 'I ate my piano,' he admits, mourning the fact he had to sell his most prized possession and went through the proceeds so fast. There's also a lot about siblinghood, with the dynamic between Pandora, Edison, and Pandora's husband, Fletcher, mirroring the relationship between the three siblings in Shriver's earlier novel A Perfectly Good Family. I don't think Pandora's conflict between the two men is drawn as well as the quandary in A Perfectly Good Family, however; Edison is, amazingly, the more likeable of the two, despite being completely selfish, while it's inexplicable why she ever married Fletcher at all. The extreme flaws of both Edison and Fletcher do mar the novel's structure to some extent, but, as Fletcher is portrayed as a thin health nut, perhaps that is the point, although it is unlike Shriver to be so schematic.

The strongest aspect of this imperfect novel has nothing to do with size. It bravely faces up to a question that Shriver has been toying with throughout her career: what do you do if you try your best at something and don't succeed? And what happens if you do get just what you want? She first posed this question in Checker and the Derailleurs, where, as I wrote in my review of the book, she cops out at the last moment. Checker loves making music for the sheer joy of it, and doesn't want to submit his art to outside judgement because he knows it would rob the pleasure from it, whether his work was seen as good or bad. Ultimately, however, a friend passes on a tape to a record company without his knowledge, so he gets the reward without the risk; and in the depiction of his subsequent success, there's no dark note. Her later novel, Double Fault, tells a much bleaker tale. Willy has devoted herself to tennis throughout her life, but has started to realise that her early success has turned to ashes. Forced to attend sessions with a sports psychologist, the psychologist tries to get Willy to imagine what she is without tennis. 'I am tennis,' Willy insists, but when the psychologist echoes her own words back to her, she has to admit that they sound stupid. However, the novel doesn't tell us whether Willy is able to come to terms with being a 'failure.'

 In Big Brother, as in Checker, the subject is once again success; and Shriver provides one answer to Willy's impasse. Pandora, a successful businesswoman, comes to realise that, whether the goal is losing weight or becoming famous, even achieving it never brings the satisfaction that you expect. 'However gnawing a deficiency, satiety is worse. So here is the thought: we are meant to be hungry.' This, of course, is no real solution at all, because either Edison succeeds with his weight-loss goals, but has nothing else to aim for, or fails and probably dies. As Pandora herself thinks after losing some weight: 'Did anything at all in life deliver a proper payoff?' But it is another answer to set alongside Checker's easy fame or Willy's utter defeat, and certainly something to consider carefully. This sort of thing is why I enjoy Shriver's novels so much, despite the fact that every single one is flawed, and sometimes very flawed; she always provides food for thought.


  1. I can't decide whether or not to read this one and every review confuses me even more! I loved Kevin, but have been disappointed by all her other novels. I'm not sure I can cope with her flawed writing.
    I'm intrigued by your comments about which aspects of a person I notice first. I think that depends on a lot of different factors and will change for each person. I'm more likely to notice the most extreme aspect of them - eg I'll notice that they are very young/old first, whilst not take much notice of the age of everyone in the middle!

  2. Yes, I think our first impressions definitely depend very much on us! I love pretty much everything Lionel Shriver writes, but I don't think any of her novels are flawless, including Kevin. I can see why her writing might not appeal - for me, the attraction is the ideas rather than the prose. Writing-wise I was most impressed with Double Fault and A Perfectly Good Family.