GRAPPLING WITH A BIG PROBLEM
The Middlesteins Big Ray
By Jami Attenberg Serpent’s Tail, 228pp, $27.99 By Michael Kimball Bloomsbury Circus, 182pp, $29.99
THE Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has an animated graphic on its website that charts the prevalence of obesity in the US between 1985 and 2010. You can watch as a map of the US transforms from a patchwork of white and light blue (areas in which no data was available or in which less than 10 per cent of the population was obese) to a smooth sweep of yellow, red and maroon (areas in which 20 per cent to 24 per cent, 25 per cent to 29 per cent and more than 30 per cent of the population are obese).
It is a startling sight, not just because it makes clear the scale of the public health crisis faced by nations such as the US and Australia, but because of the speed of the transformation. In a generation obesity has gone from being a fringe concern to a problem afflicting more than a third of the American population. The Australian situation is not much better.
The battle of the bulge is a staple of popular magazines and has been turned into entertainment on television shows such as The Biggest Loser. But in fiction, obesity and its attendant anxieties have remained largely invisible.
Why this should be is an interesting question. Yet it’s possible at least part of an answer lies in the two novels under review, each of which seeks to grapple with the question, only to emerge baffled in productive ways.
Of the two Middlesteins that it’s Jami Attenberg’s The is the more conventionally rewarding. An emotionally expansive, socially capacious portrait of a middle-class Jewish family set in Chicago, it charts what happens when 60-something pharmacist Richard Middlestein decides to leave his morbidly obese wife, Edie.
The shockwaves from this rupture ripple through the lives of Richard and Edie’s adult children, Benny and Robin, Benny’s bodyobsessed wife, Rachelle, and Benny and Rachelle’s adolescent children, Josh and Emily.
This present-day narrative is related from the often competing points of view of the various Middlesteins and several other characters whose lives are touched by the disintegration of this once-happy family unit, perhaps most importantly Kenneth Song, the Chinese restaurateur who becomes involved with Edie after Richard leaves her.
Yet running through the novel is another, historical narrative, depicting the journey of Edie and her family from their beginnings in the aftermath of World War II, to the passionate, politicised world of 1950s Judaism, to Richard’s decision to strike out into the largely gentile suburbs of Chicago’s northwest and open a string of pharmacies, catering to ‘‘ all the other lonely Jews who had moved northwest of the city . . . in the 70s, looking for an affordable new home and easy commute, not thinking far ahead enough as to how they would build a community for themselves’’.
And then on to the present, to the children of those pioneers, who have been subsumed into a contemporary, homogenised America in which the old divisions of creed and colour mean less.
What emerges, as the novel progresses, is a rich and often surprisingly moving portrait of the ways in which history and personality collide, whether in the form of Richard’s stumbling attempts to adjust to a world that seems to have left him behind by embracing internet dating or Josh and Emily’s fury