Mandy Nolan interviews the author of a controversial novel about obesity and our relationship to our bodies.
US author Lionel Shriver came to public attention with her controversial novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, an exploration of a failed relationship between mother and child that later became an international feature film starring Tilda Swinton.
Shriver’s latest release Big Brother continues her penchant for provocative and uncomfortable themes, this time addressing our first-world relationship with food and weight, telling the story of a morbidly obese man who moves in with his sister and her family.
With an impressive 12 published novels under her belt, Shriver is a writer who likes to push the boundaries. At just 15 she changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel, something she felt was more appropriate to her tomboy nature.
Known for her social activism, she challenged the US healthcare system with So Much For That, and now, with Big Brother, she addresses weight, a sensitive subject considering her own brother died of obesity-related health issues.
‘I try to pick subjects that have more than one facet,’ says Shriver, ‘something which I am conflicted about. I am torn on the weight issue, because I don’t want anyone to be sad if they don’t want to, to feel they have to strive to achieve a weight, but if you remain within a certain high weight range it can kill you.’
Shriver believes that the narcissistic obsession with image is not only making us miserable, it’s making us fat.
‘This whole obsession is out of control and it’s making lots of people miserable and making them miserable just makes them fatter. I am becoming extremely impatient with these magazines and mainstream newspapers that track celebrity – and they talk about weight, but they are not digging into the issue. They deal with it as a medical problem, but its a very complex issue. It’s psychologically complex, emotionally complex.’
And it’s not as simplistic as fat. Shriver’s thesis is that fat and thin form part of the same obsession with control and our battle with our physical form.
‘Being thin gets confused with virtue,’ says Shriver, who believes that people now approach the body like a work of art. ‘It’s how they expect to actualise themselves, refine themselves.
‘But to refine your body is only to refine your body. It’s boring. I think the fitness thing goes too far as well. We put this huge burden on men and women, like you have to be super slim or have a six-pack, and it takes hours and hours and to get that kind of muscle definition; you can’t do anything else.
‘We tend to confuse more economic and moral arguments about the stress on health systems with an aesthetic sense of repulsion. The representation of the thin aesthetic is also contaminated with fear, and I think there is a parallel with the classic homophobia. Appearance is more important that ever; we judge ourselves on this, we seem to have lost the distinction between body and soul.’
Overweight people are very often characterised as ‘lazy’ or ‘slobs’ or even ‘corrupt’ in comparison to the thin aesthete.
‘There is so much hostility towards overweight people. I guess they can sense it, and I think they are often subject to a lot of spatial resentment. Especially on airlines.’
Losing her brother was definitely an impetus for writing the book, although Big Brother is not just a tribute to Shriver’s brother but also an autopsy on our relationship with food, each other and self.
‘I suppose it served a mild therapeutic function,’ Shriver says of writing her latest novel, ‘although I am sometimes amazed how little difference it actually makes! There is this conceit that you can write or heal yourself well, but it’s not as simple as that – you can’t raise people from the dead with a paragraph.
‘It’s one of the things that I find humbling about writing – the limitations. I don’t know how much it helped resolve losing my brother. I did hope that in some ways it would be a tribute to him without being some slightly weird, fictionalised hegemony. I needed the story to be a book in its own right. We don’t need to afflict the readership with a series of journal entries! First and foremost, Big Brother had to be a novel that works as a novel. When I was writing I set out to tell a good story first.’
Although it was the intense emotionality of the sibling relationship and the recognition of the close existence of love and repulsion that gave Shriver the impetus to follow a story, that may have been upsetting for the rest of her family.
‘My parents especially were very worried about this book, so I showed them before I published to allay their fears, and I think they were upset there was nothing to be offended by – they weren’t in the book!
‘Having that level of obesity in my family meant I had an access to what it feels like. When I saw my brother in the latter part of my life, I didn’t think, “Oh you overweight slob, why don’t you do something?” – it was heartbreaking, what I felt was absolute sorrow and I couldn’t stop thinking of what he went through on a daily basis, because really heavy people get treated like shit.’
Shriver’s book is being met with robust conversation, and in the US one of the usual criticisms is her use of the word fat.
‘I have had my head taken off for using the word fat on radio. But for me it’s a descriptive word, because when you eat too much you develop fat. It’s not muscle or bone. I also love the word; it’s short and punchy and it’s a little onomatopoeic. And I don’t think you change the world with euphemism. I am writing about fat.’
Presented by Northern Rivers Writers’ Centre, Lionel Shriver is joined in conversation by Australian writer Matthew Condon at St Finbarr’s Hall in Byron Bay on Saturday March 1 from 5pm. Tickets through the NRWC website. For more information call 6685 5115.