In Lionel Shriver’s new novel, Big Brother, a middle-aged woman living in the Midwest welcomes her adored older brother for a visit from New York City. When Pandora arrives at the airport to pick Edison up, though, she doesn’t recognize him, the couple hundred pounds he’s gained since their last meeting obscuring his long-familiar traits. Recovering from the initial shock, Pandora risks family and sanity to help get her brother’s weight back under control. Shriver hits on certain themes that have emerged over the past year, as stepping on a scale in America and around the world has become a more fraught experience than ever and fiction has begun to weigh in. In short, obesity is having a literary moment.
It’s been a long time coming. “Obesity among Americans is a major public health problem that is bound to get worse as the nation eats more and exercises less,” The New York Times reported all the way back in 1966. But even as the obesity rate was rising steadily to its current rate of 35 percent, adding an eventual $190 billion to annual health-care costs, our sympathies lagged behind the emerging epidemic. In literature as in life, fat people were still there to be made fun of.
Case in point: the prototypical modern overweight protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, the antihero of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and “a slovenly and ranting fatso,” as Alan Friedman described him in his 1980 review for the Times. Indeed, the novel’s opening sentence describes his “fleshy balloon of a head,” and takes it from there. Ignatius is clever and intuitive, but also careless and cruel. His weight is a source not of anguish but physical comedy, his constant belching and bellowing and lumbering off further the novel’s mordant sense of satire.
With Dunces, novelists found a template for the fat protagonist. Subsequent variations include the 325-pound Misha Vainberg in Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 novel Absurdistan, who indulges in all manner of excess while trapped in a Third World country, gallivanting about the nation’s expat centers and generally making a happy fool of himself. And in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz’s 2007 novel, the titular character’s fatness aligns with his interest in comic books and science fiction, along with a painful performance around girls.
Of these characters, only Diaz’s Oscar is really bothered by his weight, although only with regard to how the opposite sex reacts to it. And regardless, for all of them obesity is not the main point but is used to signal something else defective in their characters. The medical, financial, and emotional realities of obesity never impose on them. None of them ever goes on a serious diet nor is urged to. Such characters have long existed as foils in literature, of course—from Shakespeare’s Falstaff to myriad Dickensian characters, back when the reigning collective view held that obesity was not a societal ill but the harmless pickle of a few unfortunate individuals. Yesteryear’s obese characters could be evil or jovial, but either way they tended toward caricature.
Our understanding of obesity had come a long way by the time the Ignatius Reillys of literature appeared, but that understanding didn’t translate into a balanced portrayal of obese characters. Their only progress, in fact, was marked by a move to central protagonists after a centuries-long run as side players. Even the odd novel that humanized obesity, like Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone in 1992, presented weight gain and loss as just one element in a larger story, one more hurdle to overcome on the road to triumph.
That is, until the last year or so, which has brought a dramatic shift in the portrayal of obesity in fiction. It’s like our nation’s novelists needed to watch a few seasons of The Biggest Loser, the weight-loss competition show that debuted in 2004, in order to develop a sense of the anguish that can accompany great heft. David Whitehouse’s 2011 novel Bed gave a precursor of what was to come, with a character who intentionally becomes the fattest man in the world, seemingly as a publicity stunt. But the first work truly in the new vein came in January 2012 with Liz Moore’s Heft, a compassionate treatment of a man who weighs more than 500 pounds and hasn’t left his home for 10 years. Michael Kimball’s Big Ray, about a man coming to terms with his obese father’s death, soon followed. Then, near the end of the year, Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins appeared to widespread acclaim. Attenberg’s protagonist, Edie Middlestein, weighs in at over 300 pounds, with the consequences of her overeating already apparent and unraveling her family.
The arrival of Shriver’s Big Brother this week confirms this new type of obese protagonist. Like its predecessors, it teems with sympathy for not only its obese character, but also the havoc his condition wreaks on those who love him. Shriver endeavors to capture the psychology behind Edison’s extreme weight gain, both from his perspective and from his sister’s. “Yeah, I used to look pretty good. Then I didn’t,” explains big brother Edison. “That’s the point. Once I got sort of fat, one more baby-back didn’t matter.” Pandora, for her part, muses, “Fat itself was depressing, which made him fatter.”
This recent wave of novels may or may not serve as a reflection of our changing attitudes toward obesity. Research shows that despite the growing seriousness of the epidemic, American society as a whole still tends to stigmatize obesity. And certainly, acceptance is not a straightforward goal: we don’t want merely to learn to live with it, we want to put an end to it, which requires continual resistance. “Having conspicuously triumphed in the competition for resources, the fleshiest among us are therefore towering biological success stories,” observes Shriver’s Pandora. “But ask any herd of overpopulating deer: nature punishes success.” That biological success has become a crime against health is an irony worthy of literature’s current plotlines.