Brother’s tragedy lost in the pol­i­tics

Big Brother

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - David Bar­rett David Bar­rett

By Lionel Shriver Fourth Es­tate, 384pp, $29.99 (HB)

ASa nov­el­ist who writes out­spo­ken po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary and hard­headed re­al­ist fic­tion, Lionel Shriver is an anom­aly in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture. She goes about the busi­ness of be­ing a writer in the old-fash­ioned way.

A pro­lific jour­nal­ist, her in­tel­li­gent and sen­si­ble opin­ions can be read in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines across the English-speak­ing world. Un­usu­ally for a mod­ern nov­el­ist, she is also not afraid to use her fic­tion to tackle con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal prob­lems.

Born in the US, Shriver has spent most of her adult life in Lon­don. She has a se­ri­ous world view and can write the novel of do­mes­tic man­ners — The Post-Birth­day World (2007) is a tale of adul­tery set in Lon­don — and the big so­cial novel that ad­dresses a theme. Shriver has writ­ten about high school vi­o­lence (her break­through novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which won the 2005 Or­ange Prize), health­care fail­ures ( So Much for That, 2010) and ter­ror­ism ( The New Repub­lic, 2012).

But her new novel, Big Brother, has its ori­gins in a pri­vate trauma. Shriver’s el­der brother, the novel’s ded­i­ca­tee Greg, died of com­pli­ca­tions as­so­ci­ated with obe­sity in 2009. Shriver has writ­ten about her brother in her jour­nal­ism: in a piece pub­lished soon be­fore he died she said his con­di­tion broke her heart.

She said re­cently that she wrote Big Brother to de­ter­mine whether she might have had the for­ti­tude to care for Greg on a full-time ba­sis, had she been called on to do so.

The novel’s pro­tag­o­nist is Edi­son Ap­paloosa, a mid­dle-aged jazz pi­anist. When Edi­son last saw his younger sis­ter, the novel’s nar­ra­tor Pan­dora Half­da­nar­son, he was a suc­cess­ful mu­si­cian who played the pi­ano in New York clubs. Now he weighs al­most as much as a pi­ano.

Out of work and out of luck, Edi­son goes to live with Pan­dora — and, dis­as­trously, her hus­band and two stepchil­dren — at her home in Iowa.

The first half of the novel tells the story of Edi­son’s two months liv­ing with his sis­ter’s fam­ily. He fouls up the kitchen with pan­cake stacks and lasagne slabs.

Pan­dora loves her big brother and ig­nores his weight gain. But her hus­band, Fletcher, is a fit­ness freak who eats brown rice and broc­coli for din­ner. He makes fine fur­ni­ture too and, pre­dictably, Edi­son sits on one of th­ese pieces and breaks it.

As Edi­son pre­pares to re­turn to New York, where he has no work prospects or a place to live, Pan­dora con­sid­ers ask­ing him to stay longer.

En­raged, Fletcher is­sues an ul­ti­ma­tum: your brother goes or I do. The novel’s sec­ond half deals with the con­se­quences of Pan­dora’s de­ci­sion.

Shriver can tell a story, and the nar­ra­tive speeds along with the pace of Edi­son’s prodi­gious calo­rie con­sump­tion. The trou­ble is, she won’t tell a story just for the sake of it.

Al­most ev­ery­thing that hap­pens to Edi­son takes place in the ser­vice of ex­pos­ing how so­ci­ety mis­treats obese peo­ple or to show how obese peo­ple mis­treat them­selves. This is a laud­able pro­ject, but it mars the novel by turn­ing it into an ar­gu­ment rather than a work of art.

When Pan­dora waits at the air­port for Edi­son to ar­rive from New York, she con- ve­niently over­hears the com­plaints of two pas­sen­gers who sat next to her brother on the plane. Load­ing the dice, Shriver makes the girl a ‘‘ slen­der brunette’’ hold­ing an ap­ple and the man ‘‘ lanky’’ with ‘‘ a ten­nis racket slung over a shoul­der and the rem­nants of a sum­mer tan’’. As they whinge about los­ing an arm­rest, you feel the con­ver­sa­tion is be­ing staged not in the ser­vice of the nar­ra­tive but to make a point about how cruel skinny peo­ple can be to fat peo­ple.

Else­where, Edi­son and Pan­dora try to rent a prop­erty. ‘‘ Three land­lords in a row had sounded pos­i­tive on the phone, only to lay eyes on Edi­son and in­form us re­gret­fully that the apart­ment had been taken.’’ Ag­grieved, Pan­dora does ‘‘ some check­ing’’ and dis­cov­ers that ‘‘ the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act didn’t cover the obese’’.

Once again, the pur­pose of this episode isn’t to move the nar­ra­tive along or deepen the reader’s feel­ing for Edi­son.

The pur­pose is to point out that obese peo­ple aren’t pro­tected from prej­u­dice by law, and that thin peo­ple can abuse over­weight peo­ple with im­punity. It’s a fair enough point to make.

But there is too much point-scor­ing in the novel, with the re­sult that Edi­son’s sup­pos­edly am­ple three di­men­sions flat­ten into the two di­men­sions of a po­lit­i­cal cartoon.

Big Brother isn’t the first time Shriver has placed a loved one at the cen­tre a novel in fic­tion­alised form. So Much for That is built around the ter­mi­nal ill­ness of Gly­nis Knacker, a char­ac­ter whose ge­n­e­sis in the death of a close friend Shriver has also writ­ten about in her jour­nal­ism.

There is noth­ing wrong with this, of course: nov­el­ists do it all the time. But in Shriver’s fic­tion the po­lit­i­cal takes such prece­dence over the per­sonal that her char­ac­ters — even when based on some­one close, such as a brother — get pushed around her pages for po­lit­i­cal ends.

Edi­son’s con­di­tion is a tragedy. Shriver is aware of this, as her thoughtful ar­ti­cles on obe­sity and her brother’s death show. But she hasn’t made a good novel out of it.

There is no deep un­der­tow of pain, or grief or suf­fer­ing, in Big Brother. Edi­son in­spires no real love from the reader be­cause he isn’t writ­ten with the in­ten­sity his tragic fate deserves. So adept at cap­tur­ing the com­plex­ity of the outer world, in Big Brother Shriver fails to ren­der the com­plex­ity of Edi­son’s in­ner world.

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