When did food become so intricately tied to surveillance? The title of Lionel Shriver’s new novel, Big Brother, is more than a pun; it gestures at this link. Standpoint readers will be well acquainted with Shriver, whose cheekily contrarian column for this magazine has touched on both of these issues, surveillance and bodily surfeit. In May 2011, she pointed out the core hypocrisy in the “sin” tax: “on the one hand it’s meant to reduce or eliminate detrimental behaviour; on the other, it’s touted as a windfall.” Big Brother wants to punish you for eating poorly, with every expectation that you will continue to do so.
Taking up the doctrine of non-judgmentalism in regard to sex, creed, and colour, we have become, in Shriver’s phrase, ever more vigilant “food fascists”. When the protagonist of Big Brother walks in on her titular obese sibling mid-binge, spooning confectioner’s sugar straight from the box, she muses: “It would have been less upsetting to have interrupted you snorting cocaine.” Junk food has made junkies of us.
Still, calorie counting and carb cutting may not seem like the stuff of great drama, particularly for a novelist whose reputation was jolted into high gear by the Orange Prize-winning We Need to Talk About Kevin, written from the perspective of the mother of a school shooter. But Big Brother is gripping indeed: fully realised, psychologically acute, and bracingly unsentimental towards its characters. In this lack of sentimentality, Shriver is an heir to Kipling (her debut novel was titled The Female of the Species). Her flawed and failing humans are created in the image of Kipling’s “God of Things As They Are”.
Things As They Are, when it comes to bodies, pool at two extremities. Pandora, Big Brother‘s protagonist, is caught between her morbidly (telling adverb) obese brother and her punitive, fitness-freak husband. Both are involved in artistic pursuits illustrative of their personalities: Edison the brother is a jazz pianist, all anarchic ease, excess, and self-expression, while Fletcher the husband is a furniture designer, all sleek, pinched craft with very little thought given to comfort (“My husband’s confabulations of oak, cedar, and ash were more sensuous for the eye than the ass”). When Edison, down on his luck, leaves New York for a two-month stay at his sister’s house on Solomon Drive, Pandora becomes the fabled solomonic baby torn in two.
Edison’s tale of waste and woe emerges, more terrible than any character could have imagined. But the deck is stacked in more ways than one. The book is set in the American heartland of Iowa, where “my fellow citizens are so consistently broad of backside, round of shoulder, stout of leg, and plump of bicep that we might all be trooping across a canvas by Fernando Botero”. Even in such a landscape, Edison is so gross that strangers recoil from his smell, his mass, his presence. The pitch of moral revulsion is captured perfectly.
Big Brother is absolutely fearless when it comes to actual bodies inhabited by actual human characters. Sometimes the tone is lyrical: “Manifest to myself in the ethereal privacy of my head, I grow alarmed when presented with evidence of my public body.” Other times, it is shockingly, gruesomely animal. There are other novelists who would liken chocolate fudge cake to faecal matter — but only Shriver would dare risk the reader’s sympathy by hinging a plot point on actual faecal matter, and pull it off with pathos. Even Irvine Welsh only dared play the subject for laughs.
“What happened to Uncle Edison?”
“I don’t know, sweetie.”
“Is he sick?”
“According to the latest thinking on the subject” — we heaved to a stand — ”yes.”
This is Shriver at her cold-eyed best. “One in Three Would Trade Year of Life for Ideal Body” is the Telegraph headline that Shriver has chosen for the book’s epigraph. It becomes a chilling forecast as, halfway through the book, Pandora and Edison do just that: devote a year of their lives to an intense crash diet, intent on restoring Edison to a healthy, relatable frame. In the process, little sister becomes watchful, stern Big Brother — and Pandora’s own feelings about her marriage, her childhood, her competitive drive, and her loyalties are tested. “When I first took this project on,” says Pandora, “I worried it was more than I could handle. But the real project turns out to be much, much bigger. I have to do nothing less than give my big brother a reason for living.”
Will they succeed? Here I’ll just point out that no contemporary novelist has proven herself less committed to the happy ending than Shriver. But ours is an era of treacle, and not just the edible kind. The antidote is Shriver’s psychological, humane, sober prose. In the end, the only word for it is nourishing.