Review: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Spitfire American novelist Lionel Shriver isn’t known for her subtlety or political correctness. Instead she cannily skewers the major issues that are at the forefront – or that have been relegated to the collective back of the mind – of American society. As an expat in London since 1985, she is able to present a simultaneously detached yet insider view of American culture. Her previous book, So Much for That (2010) took on the health care industry, while her breakthrough novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), was about school shootings. Now, in her latest novel, Big Brother, the target is America’s rising obesity epidemic, and once again Shriver pulls no punches.
Edison Appaloosa is fat. Not chunky, big-boned, or a little heavy; he’s fat. So fat that his younger sister, narrator Pandora Halfdanarson, doesn’t even recognize him when he gets off the airplane to visit her in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Who is this 386-pound behemoth in a wheelchair? The last time she’d seen him he was a svelte New York City jazz pianist. But then, life hasn’t quite worked out the way Pandora or Edison expected.
The two of them grew up in the shadow of celebrity with their father Travis Appaloosa, a washed-up B-list TV actor not unlike Wilton Deere in Hester Kaplan’s The Tell. He’s still somewhat known for sitcom Joint Custody, reruns of which plague late-night listings – and it still makes him the occasional dollar from memorabilia and cast reunions. But Travis hasn’t coped well with his fading popularity, and now Edison, who took his father’s stage name as his last name, looks set to follow in his footsteps. He’s been on a downward spiral ever since his wife left him for trying heroin; she was pregnant with their son Carson, who he hasn’t seen since, and he had to sell his piano and put all his possessions in storage when the jazz gigs dried up. An addictive personality has led to him replacing drugs and alcohol with food, hence the morbid obesity.
Pandora’s relationship with food isn’t quite so unhealthy, but it still bears an element of neurosis. She was once a caterer with her own firm, Breadbasket, but she left it to start up a niche company, Baby Monotonous, which manufactures personalized pull-string dolls that ape their target’s most overused catchphrases. Over the years as a caterer she put on a few extra pounds and now that she’s past 40 she finds it difficult to look in the mirror; ideally she’d love to lose 20-30 pounds. Meanwhile her husband, Fletcher Feuerbach, is a health and exercise nut who subsists on broccoli and brown rice and cycles dozens of miles per week. Especially when Edison moves in for his two-month ‘sabbatical,’ Fletcher and Pandora find it nearly impossible to compromise on a suitable diet: Pandora’s hip, contemporary gastronomy contrasts with Fletcher’s asceticism but also with Edison’s gluttonous down-home tastes. For this peculiar family, food becomes a battlefield of dueling meals and philosophies.
In the tediously long middle section of the novel, Pandora rents an apartment for her and Edison and sets up a one-year boot camp to get him to lose the excess weight. She’s risking her marriage to Fletcher – who doesn’t believe Edison can stick to a weight-loss program anyway – but she feels she must save Edison from himself, before it’s too late. Pandora finds a scheme based around four daily protein drinks, such that she and Edison are on a pure liquid diet for over six months. Although Pandora doesn’t need to lose nearly so much weight, she follows the same diet and loses about 50 pounds – almost becoming anorexic in the process. Edison steadily loses weight and starts to put his life back together: he helps out at Baby Monotonous, takes up the piano again, and helps the Iowa Red Cross with flood relief. Slowly he’s becoming the person Pandora wanted him to be once again. Even though Pandora and Edison gradually reintroduce various solid foods, it seems theirs will always be a neurotic relationship with food, one that demands weighing and measuring every ounce.
As Pandora and Edison grow closer through their self-enforced privations, Pandora and Fletcher drift further apart. And even when Edison reaches his goal of 163 pounds and throws a jubilant “Coming of Size” party, where he will make Fletcher (literally) eat his words in the form of a giant chocolate cake, Shriver hints that the sense of triumph will not last long. In fact, an instant relapse seems almost inevitable – if Edison really did succeed at all. The novel’s ending leaves readers feeling tricked, making them question the bulk (pun intended) of what has gone before. Did Pandora really do all she could to save Edison from his self-destructive tendencies? How much can people truly change about themselves, and is willpower alone enough? The conclusion fits the pattern of Shriver’s usual (slightly distasteful) cynicism. Although it does not have the physical gruesomeness of the endings of We Need to Talk About Kevin and So Much for That, it still leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.
In addition, there is more sheer nastiness in Big Brother than in previous Shriver novels. Flouting the rules of political correctness and poking fun at social ills is all well and good, but some of Shriver’s fat jokes just feel cruel. She has too easy a target; her attacks seem graceless. Here’s one of Pandora’s cheap shots at Edison, for instance: “That cliché not mentioning the elephant in the room was taking on a literal cast.” We don’t need to see Edison scoffing a whole box of confectioner’s sugar, or blocking the toilet with his correspondingly gigantic output, to know that he has no self-control when it comes to food. Sometimes less is more when it comes to setting up for a moralistic message.
(If I felt cheated by Big Brother’s fake-out ending, I was also disappointed by the lack of resonances tied in with the title. Such a title might have prompted Shriver to take advantage of its Orwell associations and speak out against government tyranny and surveillance – a topic that seems particularly germane in the week after the revelation of NSA’s extensive monitoring of Internet activity. Perhaps this could be Shriver’s next critical lens onto the failings of American society?)
Here, as in some previous novels, Shriver wastes too much time on exposition and obvious dialogue (e.g. Pandora: “How much you weigh is within your control.” / Edison: “That’s what you think.” / Pandora: “Yes. That is what I think.”), making the reader impatient to get on with the storyline. The overly long “fat camp” section quickly becomes tiresome, and like the “Monotonous” dolls Pandora’s company creates, a few of her characters are mere caricatures. Edison himself is an especially flat character, largely because of his tendency for using silly, outdated jazz lingo: he’s always boasting about how he played with “some heavy cats” in his day, “dig it?” Like Pandora’s pull-string dolls, Shriver’s characters have just a few habits and speech patterns that then prescribe their limitations; the parodies allow Shriver to make her desired jabs, but don’t reflect any deep engagement with or understanding of character. She makes Edison such a pathetic figure of fun that it’s then hard to take him seriously when he makes a Shylock-type plea for compassion (to Fletcher): “Look, man, I know I’m fat…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 author herself seems to have a somewhat unusual attitude towards food – interviews invariably recount her extreme approach to diet and exercise – which makes one wonder if there is more than a touch of Pandora (or even Fletcher) in her. And indeed, Big Brother was inspired by her older brother Greg’s battle with obesity-related illnesses, which eventually led to his death at age 55 (in 2009). Just as So Much for That was Shriver’s way of exorcising her guilt over not being there for her friend Terri while she was dying of mesothelioma, it seems that in Big Brother Pandora’s campaign to save her brother might be a way for Shriver to be a vicarious heroine. Even if she couldn’t save Greg, she can at least get people talking about how America’s obesity epidemic destroys both individual lives and families.
But there’s a bigger picture here; the novel points to overeating as a sign of a more general angst: “It wasn’t that eating was so great – it wasn’t – but that nothing was great. Eating being merely okay still put it head and shoulders above everything else that was decidedly less than okay.” In Shriver’s most recent diagnosis of a sick society, it’s a bleak prognosis indeed: “Why bother to discover the Higgs boson or solve the economics of hydrogen-powered cars? We no longer knew how to eat.”