Lionel Shriver has applied her one-two punch of satire and storytelling to global terrorism ( The New Republic), health care ( So Much for That, 2010 National Book Award finalist) and teenage killers ( We Need to Talk about Kevin, winner of the 2003 Orange Prize). In a sure sign the way we eat is out of whack, her 12th novel takes on obesity. Combining humor, horror and an odd, biting humanity, Big Brother is an acquired taste.
Shriver, who changed her name from Margaret Ann to Lionel, chooses conspicuous and sometimes clunky names for her characters here, starting with narrator Pandora Halfdanarson, a high-profile entrepreneur of a quirky business. Her husband, an artisan carpenter and a “nutritional Nazi” is named Fletcher, as in Horace Fletcher, who a century ago advocated chewing each bite of a food a hundred times. They have two teenage kids and a “big, lobotomized” suburban home.
Enter Edison. A gifted jazz pianist, Edison is also someone you dread sitting beside on a plane. He rolls off his flight in Cedar Rapids in an extra-wide wheelchair. “I had to look away because it was rude to stare, and even ruder to cry,” says Pandora. However, look she must. Edison is her brother, all 386 pounds of him.
On his first night, Edison eats the entire family meal meant to feed five, with leftovers. The battle lines are drawn — insatiable Edison and his secret stash of cinnamon buns on one side, fussy Fletcher with his beige barley salads on the other — and Pandora in the middle. “What is wonderful about kinship is also what is horrible about it,” she says. “There is … no natural limit to what these people may reasonably expect of you.” In a book given to comedic, logical and sometimes horrific extremes, Pandora is the book’s moral compass, the voice we trust.
Less trustworthy is Pandora and Edison’s father, the self-named Travis Appaloosa, a cheesy ’70s sitcom star. The perfect modern dad on TV, Travis was and is a needy, self-absorbed mess in real life. The trope weighs down the story, so to speak, but allows Shriver to address our warped view of reality. Pandora, on the other hand, feels compelled to show people who they really are. Her company manufactures dolls customized to look and talk like you. The dolls aren’t always kind, but like Shriver herself, they’re dead-on accurate. Fletcher’s doll squawks, “I want DRY toast! I want DRY toast!”
Meanwhile, Edison is committing “slow-motion suicide-by-pie.” Never given to subtlety, Shriver has Edison hit bottom not once but twice. First comes a scene involving an overflowing toilet and Pandora cleaning up her brother’s mess. But the real break comes quite literally — Edison sits on and crushes Fletcher’s lovingly handcrafted but uncomfortable (and unsellable) chair. Fletcher issues an ultimatum — it’s Edison or their marriage.
Shriver, whose diet and fitness obsession is legendary, lards Big Brother with insights about body image and how “we had mislaid the most animal of masteries. Why bother to discover the Higgs boson or solve the economics of hydrogen-powered cars? We no longer knew how to eat.”
Pandora moves out, rents an apartment and with Edison embarks on a weight loss regimen of powdered supplements. This becomes Pandora’s way to reconnect with her brother and unravel the big fat mess of their childhood. What follows is quick-paced, delicious, light.
But light doesn’t last with this author. Her novels are never easy on the reader. Big Brother was also hard on the writer, whose brother Greg died in 2009 of a whole menu of obesity-related illness. The closer Shriver gets to the heart of the story, the sadder it becomes. The question for Pandora is how her brother has come “to be like this. There’s more to it than corned beef on rye.” The author’s question is larger, harder — what would, what can you do when someone you love is destroying himself? How much can you really clean up after someone else?
The novel is divided into three sections, Up, Down and Out. This last section, the shortest, breaks the readers’ trust — and hearts. It’s the wrong way to end a novel. And perhaps the only option the author could live with. Big Brother is vintage Shriver — observant, unsettling, funny, but also, as Pandora admits, “Very, very sad.”
Ellen Kanner is the author of “Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner.”