Creating a novel about a morbidly overweight character, following the death of one’s own brother from obesity-related complications, would seem a challenge for any author. For Lionel Shriver, there was another problem: constantly writing about eating meant she often found it hard to resist indulging herself in the process.
Speaking about her most recent book, Big Brother, the author best known for We Need to Talk About Kevin confessed that it led to temptation.
“There’s only one thing harder than losing weight and that’s writing about it,” she said at the Independent Bath Literature Festival.
“Every time I returned to the manuscript I got hungry. I’ve heard from readers it had the same effect on them, so it’s actually a weight-gaining book. Maybe it should be sold with a packet of biscuits.”
Shriver’s brother, Greg, died in 2009. She said she had felt compelled to write the book, and had realised there are no simple answers to any of the psychological, social and even moral conundrums involved.
“We have brought a lot of condemnation to bear on the overweight,” she said. “It’s not just a health issue but a cultural denunciation – an indictment of their characters. That’s where I draw the line.”
Big Brother follows the 40-year-old Pandora Halfdanarson, a successful Iowa businesswoman and step-mother of two, who finds herself suddenly having to look after her 28-stone brother Edison – formerly a svelte New York jazz pianist – with potentially disastrous consequences for her marriage and family life.
Not only is Edison out of money, he breaks a prized item of her husband Fletcher’s carefully designed, high-end furniture. Together with Edison’s smart-arse sniping and gross, gargantuan bowel movements, this eventually goads Fletcher – a cycling freak and salad-eating “nutritional Nazi” – into a him-or-me ultimatum.
Contemplating how society, particularly in the West, might start to disentangle the mental knots into which it has tied itself over obesity, Shriver said: “A bizarre complication is that reward and punishment have become one ... If we have a plate of biscuits there is a reward, but also instantaneous self-punishment. ‘You shouldn’t have eaten that, you idiot,’ we tell ourselves. There’s an element of self-abuse going on.”
Shriver explained that she had seen this with her own brother. Like Edison in the novel, he had been responding to a series of disappointments in his life. “It’s as if he was taking revenge on himself for having disappointed himself.
“I’m uneasy with the whole blame thing,” she added. “It’s not that simple, even to blame the food industry. We have to get beyond just finding fault.”