Brother’s tragedy lost in the politics
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.