25 April 2014
BIG BROTHER by Lionel Shriver
It seems to be an essential part of Western culture that we’re obsessed with our appearance. To paraphrase ‘You’re So Vain’, the famous song by Carly Simon, we all have one eye in the mirror as we watch ourselves go by. Our weight is a vital component of this obsession as it contributes so much (literally) to what we look like. We don’t need to travel much further to say we’re obsessed with weight and thereby with eating.
And rather than the TV reality game show or government intrusion, as you might think, that’s what this book is about – our relationship with food. Perhaps I should say the US’s relationship with food because that’s where the book is set and attitudes on this issue across the pond are probably a little more extreme than ours in the UK. But there’s no doubt that we’re heading in the same direction so reading BIG BROTHER will tell us where we’re likely to be in a few years time.
We all have an attitude toward food, whether we like to admit it or not. The book focuses primarily on obesity (hence the title) but being too thin also figures and each of the three main characters has issues of one kind or another. The narrative is told through the eyes of Pandora who admits to being a tad overweight herself. She’s married to Fletcher and he deals in small portions and lots of exercise. So who ate all the pies? That would be Edison, Pandora’s older brother, who she’s looked up to since they were children. But when he arrives at her house, suddenly in need of a place to stay, she doesn’t recognize him. The once slim, hip, jazz pianist has put on hundreds of pounds. How did that happen? Many of us are no doubt asking the same question of ourselves.
And it’s a question that Shriver tackles head on. Just as she did in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN where she deals with the issue of raising a child serial killer, she doesn’t shirk the subject. As Pandora battles to come to terms with her brother’s affliction and subsequently to try and help, the thin veneer holding her family together slowly peels away, exposing both its strengths and its weaknesses. As an exposition of how such a fundamental necessity as eating can rule (and destroy) people’s lives, the book is a masterclass. Shriver portrays overeating as an emotional reaction. We don’t need to overeat – so why do it? For that matter, why the need for excessive loss? The book serves to highlight both.
The point is that we’re already talking about the issue rather than the book itself. Shriver is brilliant at doing this by holding up a contentious subject and making us think about it. But as a piece of literature, as compelling and as well-written as it undoubtedly is, for me BIG BROTHER has a couple of weaknesses.
Firstly, I occasionally find Shriver’s prose unnecessarily overwritten and convoluted. Perhaps I’m just a bear with a small brain, but there were quite a few times when I had to go back and re-read a passage so that I could understand what was being said eg.
‘But so minor a matter as thankfulness for the competent multitasking of the human brain 99.9 per cent of the time would never be enough for Edison, for whom plot had always to be writ large.’
I guess my reading this must coincide with my remaining 0.1 per cent because it took me a few goes to get it – at least, I think I’ve got it. It comes at the conclusion of Chapter Six in Part One which was difficult enough in itself as it deals with a TV show where we’re treated to the names of all the characters and the actors who play them - so that by the end of it I was getting confused as to who was who. Plus there were a couple of words Shriver uses that I had to look up in the dictionary. Not that I mind that once or twice as she’s used almost every other word in it anyway. A minor gripe.
More importantly is the concept of the book as a novel. This is literary fiction and I like mine to be believable. Unfortunately I lost contact with that at the point where Pandora elects to ‘save’ her brother and by so doing endangers her relationship with her husband. For all Fletcher’s faults, they seem to get on reasonably well together – why would she put that at risk? This unlikely decision stretched my capacity to suspend disbelief to breaking and I began to lose touch a little. My suspicions were confirmed by the ending, reminiscent of both THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN (John Fowles) and ATONEMENT (Ian McEwan). Here Shriver pulls the rug from under her own feet by revealing that this truly is a ‘fiction’ and that the story actually relates to her real-life brother where matters took an entirely different course.
However, don’t let this ‘spoiler’ put you off trying the book. For all my whingeing about sections of the prose, for the most part it’s a joy to read and as a means of flagging up what is an ever-growing problem (pardon my pun) it’s truly immense.
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