Given how much I have admired Lionel Shriver’s other novels, it perhaps surprising that it has taken me nearly six months from the publication date to read her latest release, Big Brother. Spurred on by an engaging interview she gave at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, I eventually picked it up and have just finished devouring the novel. Devouring being the key word. Shriver’s books are known for tackling difficult questions and controversial themes, and this one is no different: what would you do if your big brother became morbidly obese and you were the only person he could turn to for help?
Anyone who has ever seen a picture of Shriver may well wonder what she can possibly understand about the subject; she is a very slender woman, who apparently exists on one meal daily and a strict exercise regime. Yet, lurking in the background of her success and slimness there lies a terrible heartache. Her older brother, Greg, died as a result of complications from morbid obesity and it was clear from the interview I attended that this still haunts her. In November 2009, she wrote a magazine column about her brother’s failing health, lamenting that “every time I talk to my brother, I wonder if it’s for the last time.” Faced with the choice of giving up her busy life in London to return to the US and look after her ailing sibling or staying put and not risking her marriage and career, life took the choice away from her and Greg died soon afterwards. The dilemma she faced in real life forms the crux of this novel.
Shriver’s alter ego in Big Brother is Pandora, a forty-something living in small town Iowa with husband Fletcher and his teenage children Tanner and Cody. Like Shriver, Pandora made her living for many years running her own catering business before moving on to something more successful; for Shriver, writing, but for Pandora a business making custom novelty dolls for adults that proves a lucrative, faddish hit and makes her a minor entrepreneurial celebrity. Pandora tries to be generous in her success, allowing Fletcher to give up his hated sales job and run his own business making high-end custom furniture that few people can afford to buy. As something of a failure at self-employment, Fletcher instead seeks to maintain control in his life by becoming a joyless “nutritional Nazi” and cycling fanatic, something that makes Pandora feel glum about the extra pounds she has gained in going from an active caterer to sedentary office worker.
The precarious state of this marriage is tested by the entry of big brother himself: Pandora’s elder sibling Edison, a once hip and sexy jazz musician in New York who comes to stay after having falling on hard times. When Pandora goes to meet him at the airport she doesn’t recognise him; the once lean and athletic man who her friends used to nurse crushes on has ballooned in weight to nearly 400 pounds (around 28 stone). He struggles to walk, to fit into chairs and to appreciate how his extra size is potentially damaging to everything around him. As the weeks turn into months, he fights with Fletcher, damages Pandora’s belongings with his carelessness, and eats them out of house and home. After one of the most visceral, brutal scenes that I have come across in fiction – which I won’t spoil for you here – he hits rocks bottom and confesses he has nothing left in New York: no home, no money, and no more career prospects. Edison and Fletcher clearly can’t live together any longer, so Pandora faces the crucial choice. Does she send her difficult brother back to the strained goodwill of his friends and his continued “slow-motion-suicide-by-pie” or does she move in with him temporarily to help him lose weight, risking her marriage in the process?
Shriver’s novels often involve characters who can’t quite make it no matter how hard they try, and Edison joins this pantheon of also-rans alongside the likes of Ramsey (The Post-Birthday World) and Willy (Double Fault). A petulant, self-absorbed man consumed with how great he could have been if only he played with this or that star, he makes for an unlikeable character that only a family member could love. But love him Pandora does, and Big Brother explores the nature of the sibling relationship (something Fletcher find hard to understand as an only child) as much as it does why we overeat. She wonders at the “so-whatness” of so many meals, why we enslave ourselves to food and timetables punctuated by mealtimes when it provides such a fleeting and unsatisfying pleasure. “It wasn’t that eating was so great – it wasn’t” she writes, “- but that nothing was great. Eating being merely OK still put it head and shoulders above everything else that was decidedly less than OK.”
Lionel Shriver is incapable of bad prose, and this book packs as powerful a punch as any other by her that I have read. I can’t imagine the last two lines of the book leaving any reader who has made it that far unmoved. She laboriously avoids fat discrimination (Pandora goes to great lengths not to blame Edison for his weight gain) and instead explores all the horrifying physical consequences of obesity; if reading this book doesn’t put you off your pudding, I don’t know what will.
Big Brother by Lionel Shriver
Published by Harper Collins, 2013
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