‘I am white rice’ states Pandora Half-danarson, narrator of Lionel Shriver’s obesity fable. ‘I have always existed to set off more exciting fare.’ The exciting fare on offer is the big brother of the title, the handsome, free-wheeling, jive-talking Edison, a jazz pianist.
The siblings grew up in LA, their dysfunctional family life paralleled, almost parodied, in Joint Custody, a prime-time television drama scripted by Travis Appaloosa, their smarmy, self-aggrandising father. This prolonged and subtle betrayal drives Pandora to seek anonymity in quiet Iowa, while Edison, in bohemian New York, craves public attention, and trades on his father’s fame to attain it. Edison uses the stagey ‘Appaloosa’ as his surname, while Pandora sticks with the cumbersome but authentic ‘Halfdanarson’.
But the roles find a way of reversing themselves. Pandora, as an only half-affectionate joke against her control-freak husband Fletcher, invents a ring-pull doll, a mini-me tailored to mimic the verbal tics and catch-phrases of the recipient. She seems unaware that her dolls potentially undermine the morale of the people they satirise, just as her father’s scripts undermined her own sense of self.
But the gimmick catches on, and Pandora finds herself rich and feted, in awkward contrast to Fletcher, who toils in the basement making exquisite pieces of furniture which no one in Iowa wants to buy. As Pandora’s success grows, her husband literally dwindles; he becomes a ‘nutritional Nazi’, inflicting his broccoli-and-brown-rice regime on his resentful teenage children and cycling obsessively to shed every microbe of body fat; ‘simply being in his physical presence made me feel chided’.
Thus the balance of power in the household is already wobbling when Edison, who has run out of luck and into debt, arrives for a long stay.
Pandora hasn’t seen her brother for four years.Collecting him from the airport, she finds Edison ‘or the creature that had swallowed Edison’ rolling towards her in an extra-wide wheelchair. ‘It was rude to stare, and even ruder to cry.’ Edison has put on 200 pounds. Pandora has always looked up to him, figuratively and physically, but obesity has compressed his spine by three inches, and now they are on a level. Edison has become an embodiment of the sickness of American society.
Towards the end, a strange thing happens, or doesn’t happen, forcing the reader to reassess all that has gone before; I can’t tell any more of the story without giving this away. But I can tell you what interests Shriver. This bold, brave book is about the emptiness that is both caused and masked by affluence. It’s about the erosion of personality that occurs in an age of geographical and moral rootlessness; it’s about hiding, and storytelling, and the danger of self-invention. It’s about the way people use food — preparing it, eating it, clearing up after it — as displacement activity; as Pandora says: ‘I have spent less time thinking about my husband than thinking about lunch.’
Shriver, whose own brother died of obesity-related illness, has a thesis, which she puts into Pandora’s mouth: ‘The very failure of food to reward is what drives us to eat more of it.’ She attacks ‘the baffling lassitude of affluence’, and concludes: ‘We are meant to be hungry.’
But Big Brother is neither preachy nor judgemental. It is uncomfortable to read — sometimes because it’s physically revolting, more often because our capacity for tolerance, for, as it were, loving our neighbour, is constantly tested. Edison is a repulsive character. He is as self-centred as a baby without any of a baby’s charms. His slang (‘hip’, ‘cat’, ‘dig’ etc) grates and his boastful monologues are exhausting. What is to be done with such a burden? That’s a question to which neither Pandora nor the reader can find a satisfactory answer.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.