The fact that my clothing has been visually available to other people I do not find upsetting. The body is another matter. It is mine; I have found it useful; but it is an avatar. Given that most people presumably contend with just this rattling disconnect between who they are to themselves and what they are to others, it’s perplexing why we’re still roundly obsessed with appearance. Having verified on our own accounts the feeble link between the who and the what, you’d think that from the age of three we’d have learned to look straight through the avatar as we do through a pane of glass.
Oh, the banes of this human form: the never-ending maintenance our bodies require, the obligatory strings attached through bloodlines to those we must care for or neglect. In her most recent novel, Big Brother, Lionel Shriver asks the question, “How do we eat?” and finds the answer to be a resounding “not well.”
When Pandora, former catering whiz and expert chef, arrives at the airport to pick up her big brother for a visit, she’s shocked to see much more of the man than she used to know. Her brother has morphed into that class of people politely termed “morbidly obese,” more simply called very, very fat. Thus begins big brother Edison’s bull-in-a-china-shop visit with Pandora and her family, consisting of a series of startling cracks resonating through the home as things break, and never-ending awkward moments as huge amounts of food disappear from the fridge, as peanuts dropped on the floor are clambered after.
What makes Shriver a good, if inconsistent, author to me is her ability to examine the least human parts of our experiences together. She questioned the roles of motherhood in her school shooting shocker We Need To Talk About Kevin, as a mother struggles to feel love for her dark, cruel son. And again, Shriver explores these limits of love and the obligations of family in Big Brother. The novel’s harsh characterizations of both the obsessively skinny and the overweight, its low boil of family tension bubbling up unbearably high, to resonant and unforgettable meltdowns (“…when I polish off a doughnut, that’s not doing anything to you!” Edison shouts at Pandora’s health-nut husband, at one point), seems reminiscent of what made We Need To Talk About Kevin so lulling and irresistible, so accurate in its unpleasantness, so precise in its displays of how we can fail in relationships, and how we can fail ourselves.
The accuracy here comes from intimate knowledge of the subject matter. Although unaware of this until done with the book and researching for this review, Shriver tells the New York Times Magazine that she has a strict diet and exercise regimen herself. She eats one meal a day, and runs 10 miles a day. She also had an obese brother who died young, at age 55. Tragically, much of this book seems to be inspired by our real life struggles to find contentment in eating when surrounded with abundance. As Pandora notes in the book, and any addict can understand, “The most sumptuous experience of ingestion is in-between: remembering the last bite and looking forward to the next one.”
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