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Author Lionel Shriver has taken on hot-button topics before. Her acclaimed 2011 novel “We Need to Talk About Kevin” looked at the aftermath of a high school massacre, and her 2010 book “So Much for That” critiqued the U.S. health care system.
In her new novel “Big Brother,” the topic is morbid obesity.
An Iowan couple, Pandora and Fletcher have their lives upended when Pandora’s 400-pound brother Edison comes to live with them.
Shriver mines some of her own family history for the novel.
She wrote an op-ed piece for the Guardian in 2009 about her morbidly obese big brother: “Lionel Shriver: My brother is eating himself to death.”
Her brother died days after she wrote the column.
“If it were just my family’s problem, I don’t know that I would necessarily have made a novel, but in that it’s also a larger social problem, I thought it was worth writing about,” Shriver told Here & Now.
By Lionel Shriver
I have to wonder whether any of the true highlights of my fortysome years have had to do with food. I don’t mean celebratory dinners, good fellowship; I mean salivation, mastication, and peristalsis. Oddly, for something I do every day, I can’t remember many meals in detail, while it is far easier for me to call up favorite movies, faithful friendships, graduations. It follows, then, that film, affinity, and education are more important to me than stuffing my face. Well done, me, you say. But were I honestly to total the time I have lavished on menu planning, grocery shopping, prep and cooking, table setting, and kitchen cleanup for meal upon meal, food, one way or another, has dwarfed my fondness for Places in the Heart to an incidental footnote; ditto my fondness for any human being, even those whom I profess to love. I have spent less time thinking about my husband than thinking about lunch. Throw in the time I have also spent ruing indulgence in lemon meringue pies, vowing to skip breakfast tomorrow, and opening the refrigerator/stopping myself from dispatching the leftover pumpkin custard/then shutting it firmly again, and I seem to have concerned myself with little else but food.
So why, if, by inference, eating has been so embarrassingly central for me, can I not remember an eidetic sequence of stellar meals?
Like most people, I recall childhood favorites most vividly, and like most kids I liked plain things: toast, baking-powder biscuits, saltines. My palate broadened in adulthood, but my character did not. I am white rice. I have always existed to set off more exciting fare. I was a foil as a girl. I am a foil now.
I doubt this mitigates my discomfiture much, but I have some small excuse for having overemphasized the mechanical matter of sustenance. For eleven years, I ran a catering business. You would think, then, that I could at least recall individual victories at Breadbasket, Inc. Well, not exactly. Aside from academics at the university, who are more adventurous, Iowans are conservative eaters, and I can certainly summon a monotonous assembly line of carrot cake, lasagna, and sour-cream cornbread. But the only dishes that I recollect in high relief are the disasters—the Indian rosewater pudding thickened with rice flour that turned into a stringy, viscous vat suitable for affixing wallpaper. The rest—the salmon steaks rolled around somethingorother, the stir-fries of thisandthat with an accent of whathaveyou—it’s all a blur.
Patience; I am rounding on something. I propose: food is by nature elusive. More concept than substance, food is the idea of satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself, which is why diet can exert the sway of religion or political zealotry. Not irresistible tastiness but the very failure of food to reward is what drives us to eat more of it. The most sumptuous experience of ingestion is in-between: remembering the last bite and looking forward to the next one. The actual eating part almost doesn’t happen. This near-total inability to deliver is what makes the pleasures of the table so tantalizing, and also so dangerous.
Petty? I’m not so sure. We are animals; far more than the ancillary matter of sex, the drive to eat motivates nearly all of human endeavor. Having conspicuously triumphed in the competition for resources, the fleshiest among us are therefore towering biological success stories. But ask any herd of overpopulating deer: nature punishes success. Our instinctive saving for a rainy day, our burying of acorns in the safest and most private of hiding places for the long winter, however prudent in its way, however expressive of Darwinian guile, is killing my country. That is why I cast doubt on whether the pantry, as a subject, is paltry. True, I sometimes wonder just how much I care about my country. But I care about my brother.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
The journal "Science" is reporting this week on a study that may have found a genetic link to obesity - research that may explain why some people pack on pounds; others eat all they want, and don't. The lead author says it could really change the way we think about the disease.
Of course, there are other reasons people gain weight, and many are. Two-thirds of Americans are obese or overweight. The American Medical Association just classified obesity a disease, like alcoholism. And many hope that means obesity will be viewed through the same prism; that obesity will be treated, but also that there will be a recognition that it can tear families apart.
What must it be like to watch a loved one eat himself to death, to see other people look at him with disdain? If you don't already know, you'll find out in Lionel Shriver's new, sharp-as-a-tack novel "Big Brother." It's infused with discussion of weight and what we eat. Pandora is a caterer; her husband, obsessed with being thin. She idolizes her brother, Edison, the beautiful, former high school track star. But when he comes to visit her in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she picks up a man who's ballooned to 400 pounds.
LIONEL SHRIVER: (Reading) It took some doing to get the front passenger seat of our Camry to go back to the last notch. Climbing inside, Edison braced one hand on the door. I worried whether the hinges could take the stress. I'd have helped him myself, but I didn't think he could lean on me without us both collapsing. He lowered himself into the bucket seat with the delicacy of a giant crane maneuvering haulage from a container ship.
When he dropped the last few inches, the chassis tilted to the right. His knees jammed the glove compartment, and I had to give his door an extra oomph to get it shut.
YOUNG: And that's one of the prettier descriptions of Edison in "Big Brother," an exploration not only of obesity and food, but how far we can go to rescue family without drowning ourselves. And as we'll hear, this is a very personal story. Author Lionel Shriver joins us from the Argo Studios in New York. Welcome.
SHRIVER: Pleased to talk to you.
YOUNG: What a read, and we found the 2009 article you wrote in The Guardian about your own brother. It was titled "My Brother Is Eating Himself to Death."
SHRIVER: Well, I lost my brother to the complications of morbid obesity, and if it were just my family's problem, I don't know that I would necessarily have made a novel from that experience. But in that it's also a larger social problem and a problem for many other families, I thought it was worth writing about.
YOUNG: And you write with such knowledge. Tell us about Edison. Who did you want us to see?
SHRIVER: I want you to see someone who's started his life with a lot of potential and who most of his life has been quite slim, and then something happened. And you need to unravel what.
YOUNG: And he's filled with these contradictions. It's not just that he's overweight, but he's overbearing at times. He is full of himself; he's a braggart.
SHRIVER: He's one of those people - and I've met any number of them, in my life - who broadcasts an enormous amount of information, but they use language to keep people at bay. So they're constantly coming up with factual things to say, but you don't learn any more about them or how they feel.
YOUNG: Yeah. And he leaves a wake as he visits your character Pandora and her family in Iowa - a mattress cratered like a half-dug grave, a through-the-roof food bill, broken furniture. He's like a living metaphor for an oversized ego but also, an oversized person and yet, Pandora adores him.
SHRIVER: Well, I think that's very common in this birth-order thing; that you look up to your older siblings, especially when it's the other gender. You want to attribute your older siblings with heroic qualities. And therefore, when they let you down, that conflicts with this larger-than-life picture you've got of them. And one of the arcs of the novel is Pandora, little by little, trying to let go of this almost worship of her older brother, in order to actually get to know him.
YOUNG: That might be towards the end of the arc but before that, she wants to fix him; she wants to save him, to the extent that...
SHRIVER: Always a dangerous thing to want to do.
YOUNG: Yeah, with anyone - to the extent to that she's willing to sacrifice her own family. But in her family, we also see - it seems like everybody has food issues. Her husband is the other side of the coin. What would that be?
SHRIVER: She calls him a nutritional Nazi; that is, he's always coming up with a new food group that he will no longer touch. And since she used to be a caterer - and in the early years of their marriage, he loved her food, you know; and it was one of the things that she wooed him with. And then when he turns on her famous lasagna and cornbread, she feels that it's a personal rejection.
And I think that's quite realistic. I think women, in particular, often battle the feeling that if you don't like our food, then you don't like us.
YOUNG: Tell us more about what you're saying about food - how people use it, all these subtle things that are going on, far more subtle than Edison, who's so obvious.
SHRIVER: Well, we've started to use food a lot to define our identity, among other things. For example, I can't count the number of people I've met who tell me that they have one food allergy or another. And according to the research on the matter, four-fifths of these people don't have anything whatsoever wrong with them.
And I think it's because we latch onto these little, special problems we've got with food to get people to pay attention to us, to be special. We also attach a lot of moral qualities to food and certainly, to our weight. We consider heavy people to have somehow failed themselves in more than nutritional and health terms, but it seems to be giving away a weakness of character.
And I'm a little distressed, for example, the degree to which we berate ourselves - often for very small amounts of weight gain, as if so much more were at stake. I mean, obviously if you are hundreds of pounds overweight, then it's a health issue, but I think that far before you get to that point, you tend to interpret it as a character failing, as having let yourself down.
YOUNG: That's Lionel Shriver. Her new book is "Big Brother." It mirrors her own brother's death from morbid obesity. We're going to have more.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And I'm sure a lot of listeners, Robin, are going to have responses to this, personal stories. We'd love to hear from you at hereandnow.org. Just a quick check of another story we're following. There's been another round of layoffs for Chicago Public Schools; more than 2,000 employees are getting pink slips, including 1,000 teachers. More on that later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. More of Robin's conversation is next, HERE AND NOW.
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YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're speaking with author Lionel Shriver, known for taking clear-eyed looks at difficult subjects. She's the author of the bestseller "We Have to Talk About Kevin." That was about a mother grappling with the fact that her son was a mass shooter.
In Lionel's new novel, "Big Brother," a sister tries to save her brother from obesity. It's a tender story that reflects her own; her brother died of morbid obesity. She wrote about it in an op-ed piece in The Guardian before he died. And Lionel Shriver, your book is also about how we view people, how more than their gender, their clothing, you say we make these interpretations, these assumptions about people, based on their weight.
SHRIVER: They're ridiculous, not just what we think of the heavy but even very, very thin people. We have a whole other set of assumptions. They are withholding and uptight and judgmental and joyless.
YOUNG: Prone to an unconscious apartheid, instinctively partial to the company of their own withered kind.
YOUNG: Stick figures. Lionel Shriver, tell us, how much of what we are reading in the book was you as a sister? How much of what we are reading in the book was you, as a sister, trying to find out more about weight and obesity?
SHRIVER: I didn't want to turn the novel into some kind of therapy session for me. I mean, I tried to make the brother in the novel quite different in some ways from my real brother. The more you make up, the easier it is to sort things through in a way that is not only useful for the author but useful for the reader because after all the reader is the point.
YOUNG: Yeah, I'm reading, for instance, a section here where the sister, Pandora, after she decides to move out of her home and move in with her brother for a year-long project where she is going to make him lose weight, she goes online just to see the types of diets. There's chicken soup, grapefruit, lemonade, potato chip diets, cookie diets, The Zone, Dukan, Weight Watchers, Scarsdale, South Beach. After three hours of looking, she felt soiled.
SHRIVER: My favorite was the cigarette diet.
YOUNG: Is there really such a thing?
SHRIVER: Yeah, all those are real.
YOUNG: Oh no.
SHRIVER: You wouldn't believe. The air diet, I thought that had something to recommend it.
YOUNG: Well, they go on a diet that is essentially a liquid diet, packets of this powdery thing. As you say, you set it in Iowa, where the characters also talk about a crystal meth epidemic. And it quickly becomes clear that there's something about addiction that's going on here, too. They get addicted to their dieting.
SHRIVER: Yes, I think you can get addicted to dieting. In fact, that becomes one of the perils of the project is fulfilling it. If Edison does finally drop all the weight he wants to, he will have nothing left to do. I think that's one of the reasons that people often gain the weight right back is that it's all very goal-oriented, and it's exciting to meet your goal, but when the goal is met, there's nothing to do.
YOUNG: You also really illustrate beautifully how Pandora, who is trying to save her brother, they have that saying in 12-step groups, you know, don't try to save someone else unless you've got your own life jacket, a drowning person will drown you. I mean, we're not going to give away the endings, but it just about happens. Was that your experience, too?
SHRIVER: I would say that I'm personally a little suspicious of this whole intervention business. I don't think it's very easy to take on other people's problems, especially when it comes to problems of addictions, and in some ways food can be an addiction. There's no substitute for that person deciding that they are going to solve that problem themselves.
YOUNG: Well, I guess I'm wondering: Is that from your own personal experience? I can't help but go back to this 2009 Guardian article. It is heartbreaking in retrospect because you write about how you're worried you're never going to see him again, how every time you talk to your brother, you wonder if it's the last time. And in fact he died right after you wrote this article.
SHRIVER: That was a column I wrote on the Fat Pride Movement, of which I was a little skeptical, and I was using my brother as an example of someone that I wasn't sure could be called healthy at any size. That's one of their little aphorisms. And I went ahead and discussed his situation as respectfully as I could in journalism.
But I expressed concern that his health was sufficiently perilous that I wasn't entirely sure that it would see him three months later, when I had planned to show in Raleigh, where he lived, and the very afternoon I filed that column, I got a phone call from my parents that my brother was in hospital. And he never got out. So 10 days after that column was filed, my brother died.
And indeed when I went to Raleigh on my author's tour, he wasn't there.
YOUNG: I guess - so what are you saying? You so loved him, obscenely smart. You say the fact that he was fat isn't altogether his fault. You talk about some things that happened in his family. But he does eat too much. You say you have buckets of sympathy for the obese because they're subject to cruelty and ridicule. But what, is there anger, too? Is there...?
SHRIVER: Disappointment on everyone's behalf. There were a number of things contributing to his weight gain. He had a couple of severe accidents that left him barely able to walk. That makes me understand that there must be many contributing factors, both psychological and sometimes medical, to other obese patients and why they ended up gaining that weight.
YOUNG: But as you quote a doctor saying in the article, and then you quote him again in the book, the doctor said I don't have any old fat patients. It sounds like you're saying, you know, please try to do something about this.
SHRIVER: Well, it's true that that's why I wrote that initial column, that I didn't buy the healthy at any size line because I had seen up close how many different health problems my brother had. You know, he had diabetes, he had circulatory problems. He had high blood pressure. He had swelling in his feet so bad that he often couldn't get his boots on.
So I don't know where the AMA saying that obesity is a disease is that helpful, but I do think that at least that says no, you can't be healthy at any size. This is a disorder, and your body doesn't work as well when you're carrying a huge amount of fat.
On the other hand, I would like us to start distinguishing between the aesthetic and the medical, and I think that in this culture we get them confused. It's one thing to say, you know, if your BMI is over 30, then you're going to be in better health if you've dropped some weight. But it's quite another to say, you know, if your BMI is over 30, you're unsightly, and I don't want to look at you.
It's worth asking why is it that most people lose weight. The weird thing is that as much as we talk about health all the time, the real reason most people go on diets is to look better, and I really think we have to separate these issues out again. It's one thing to say someone who's very heavy has imperiled their health, but it's another to say we don't like the way you look.
YOUNG: That's Lionel Shriver. Her terrific new novel is "Big Brother." Lionel, thanks so much for talking to us about it.
SHRIVER: Oh, it's my pleasure, I really enjoyed talking to you.
YOUNG: By the way, complete surprise ending to the book. So as we said, new research shows there might be a genetic connection not just to how much people want to eat but how much of that turns into fat. We'll link you. But does that make this less of a moral issue for you? Do you have thoughts on living with a loved one's obesity? We'd love to hear from you at hereandnow.org.
HOBSON: Still ahead today, as Aurora remembers the theater shootings of a year ago, Denver asks what about other shootings that don't get national attention. News is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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