I was very excited about reading the latest novel by Lionel Shriver for a couple of reasons. Firstly because I thought We Need to Talk About Kevin was an excellent book. The structure is brilliant, it has a shocking twist, deals with controversial topics, and employs one of my favourite literary devices – the unreliable narrator. Secondly, Big Brother’s topic chimes very nicely with my own academic interests. I’m deeply interested in eating and not eating, how our choices are influenced by wider societal trends, and the ways in which narratives about such choices and behaviours are constructed. My own research is focused on the period 1600-1800, but my interest is all encompassing. A novel about obesity in contemporary society is hugely appealing.
Pandora grew up in a family dominated by her sit-com actor father and his need for public acclaim. Losing her mother in tragic circumstances threw her and brother Edison closer together, until he fled the family home for the bright lights of the New York jazz scene. Unlike her father or brother, Pandora has strived for anonymity. She nearly succeeded, but her most recent business venture has given her a modicum of fame. She still downplays her achievements and looks up to her big brother though. When she hears from one of Edison’s friends that he has hit a bit of a rut she is keen to help out. She invites Edison to stay with her and her family. It’ll be a complete change of scene for him, out in the quiet fields of Iowa.
Not recognising Edison at the airport is a massive shock. Her normally slim sexy brother is utterly transformed by the weight he has gained. Pandora struggles to find the face she knows and loves. He is more than twice the size he was when she last saw him. The change is obvious, but remains unvoiced for some time. There is a reluctance to address what has happened to cause such a major change in Edison’s life. Apart from his eating habits he is fundamentally the same opinionated braggart he always was, winding Pandora’s husband Fletcher up and causing chaos in their well-structured lives. After two months of pussyfooting around Edison and his predicament Pandora is forced to choose between her brother and her husband. Edison needs help but cannot remain living with them all; if Pandora wants to help him lose weight she’ll have to leave the family home too.
The second half of the book examines the dieting process, detailing the hunger, boredom and tedium of doing it for the long haul. Edison has a lot of weight to lose to get back to his ‘usual’ size. Pandora feels that she has gained a few too many pounds recently, and goes on a diet too. Fletcher being a complete health-freak-convert undoubtedly exacerbates her situation. Her husband doesn’t come out of the story too well at times. His brown rice and fanatical cycling is a bit holier-than-thou. Pandora cooks well, and rejecting her meals can’t help but seem a rejection of her. I don’t think he means it that way, but I wouldn’t want to live with such a puritan.
The book is about eating, dieting, and obesity but it seems to me to be at least equally as much about family, loyalty, and guilt. Pandora is torn between her two families. She can either be loyal to her brother, or to her husband and stepchildren. Neither family is a wholly comfortable place. Pandora and Edison bond other their self-centred father, but they both ignore their much younger sister. Fletcher never seems certain whether the kids are ‘his’ or ‘theirs’, and consequently the relationships are always slightly strained. Pandora plays piggy in the middle, a role she has adopted from a young age. The comparisons with the sit-com family, her father’s sole hit role, are nicely drawn throughout the novel.
There are lots of things I admired in the book, and I was drawn into the story quickly. Shriver has given the way we think about fat and fat bodies now much thought, and I think Big Brother adds to the discussion currently going on in fat studies. The confusion and revulsion it stirs in people, with associations of sloth and lack of hygiene, are all here. Unfortunately, in some ways, Edison as a character does little to challenge the stereotypes. He is a slob, stuffing his face constantly, making a mess, breaking stuff, and with questionable personal hygiene. There is absolutely no fat pride here.
Ultimately, it didn’t entirely work for me. There is a rather climactic and unexpected ending, which I hated. Up until the final section I was happy to go along with it, and it is beautifully written, as you would expect from Shriver. I still think it is well worth reading, but I am left a little deflated both from the resolution and from what I found a not critical enough dissection of the diet industry and the assumptions on which our ideas of health are based. I was hoping for something more radical, unfairly probably. It might strike odd, but I will read the book again to take a closer look at the ideas about weight. I’d also love to read it as a book club pick, the discussions would undoubtedly be very lively.
I read this book in a proof copy I was sent when I was still at Waterstones. It is available now from HaperCollins in Hardback.