Contemporary literature’s obesity epidemic

Novels like Michael Kimball's "Big Ray" reveal that corpulence has become a go-to metaphor for emotional unrest

Topics: LA Review of Books, Obesity, Big Ray, Michael Kimball, literature,

Contemporary literature's obesity epidemic
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Los Angeles Review of Books

AT OVER 500 POUNDS, the title character of Michael Kimball’s Big Ray is too big to fit in most chairs so he usually sits on the floor. After he dies, his son remembers that the only way Big Ray could stand up was “in stages”:

He needed to hold on to something he could push or pull — a door, a chair, or another piece of furniture. Then he would roll over onto his side and up onto his knees while pushing or pulling his upper body up. From his knees, he would get one foot flat on the ground and then the other foot. [...] Once his legs were under him, he could raise his upper body until he was standing upright.

There aren’t many characters as big as Big Ray in modern fiction, and there aren’t nearly as many fat characters in modern fiction as you’d expect, considering how many fat people there are in the world today. In 1995, there were 200 million obese adults worldwide. By 2008, the figure had increased to 500 million, a rise dramatic enough for the World Health Organisation to announce a global obesity epidemic. In 2010, 33.3 percent of American adults were overweight, and another 35.9 percent obese. Yet fiction has largely ignored this worldwide expansion of waistlines. The average character in today’s novel is no fatter than the average character in a novel published 10, 50, or 200 years ago.

In “On Being Ill” (1926), Virginia Woolf notes how strange it is that illness should feature so little in fiction. Her explanation for why this might be applies equally to fatness — not because fat is or is not an illness, but because both are species of physical experience, and literature, for the most part,

does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind, that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible, and nonexistent.

Woolf knows, as every one of us does, that this is nonsense, that “all day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours.” But it is hard, almost impossibly hard, she suggests, to convey physical experience in words. To record in language “the daily drama of the body” — healthy or sick, fat or thin — would need “the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason footed in the bowels of the earth.” It would need “not only a new language,” she writes, “but a new hierarchy of the passions.”



Four novels published this year rise to Woolf’s challenge, taking the day-to-day experience of the obese body as their subject. Kimball’s Big Ray, Heft by Liz Moore, The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, and Erin Lange’s young adult novel Butter all have protagonists who are double or even triple their “healthy” weight. They are super obese, or very nearly so. Super obese is one step beyond morbidly obese; it is the technical term for someone with a body mass index above 50.

Arthur Opp, one of the narrators of Heft, is even bigger than Big Ray: six foot three and somewhere between 500 and 600 pounds. A retired literature professor, Arthur hasn’t left his Brooklyn home in a decade. Edie Middlestein, the Midwestern Jewish matriarch in Attenberg’s multigenerational family saga, weighs 332 pounds and is about to undergo her second obesity-related operation. Butter takes its title from the nickname of its 423-pound, 16-year-old narrator. Sick of being bullied and ignored, Butter decides to step into the limelight and announces his intention to eat himself to death live on the Internet.

These four novels constitute an emerging and very modern genre, one that explores the physicality as well as the psychology and sociology of obesity. They describe what it’s like to move as an obese person, to approach buildings and furniture and vehicles in which you simply don’t fit: how quickly you sweat and tire and lose your breath. The prose is crammed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, bone spurs, arterial disease, flesh rotting, flesh dimpled, flesh “pocked, veined, bloated.”

¤

Of course, Ray, Arthur, Edie, and Butter aren’t the first literary characters whose fatness defines them. We can’t calculate Falstaff’s BMI, but we can assume that Shakespeare’s “fat rogue” would qualify as obese. Rabelais’s father-and-son duo Gargantua and Pantagruel, descended from a line of giants stretching back before the Flood, are “wondrously big and heavy.” These bodies reflect the personalities of the characters rather than becoming objects of interest in themselves. Falstaff’s fatness mirrors the larger-than-life unruliness that sees him exceed the boundaries of Henry IV Parts I and II to occupy center stage in The Merry Wives of Windsor — his bulk signals not dysfunction, but appetiteGargantua and Pantagruel’s size reflects the joyous excess and unpredictability of the Rabelaisian world. In Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, fatness has more negative associations: the eponymous antihero’s soft, plump body is a consequence and a symbol of the tremendous laziness that leaves him pinned to his bed. Oblomov might be said to be the true precursor to the literature of obesity.

In the past 20 years, preoccupation with weight and weight loss has been primarily the preserve of chick lit, which abounds with heroines wanting to lose a few pounds. A distinct subgenre turns these extra few pounds into an extra few dozen, but such novels have little more interest than Henry IV or Oblomov in the physical experience of the overweight body. Their plot may stem from their protagonists’ body size, but the narrative arc depends on psychological rather than physical transformation. Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed (2001) is the original and most successful example of this subgenre. It begins with its overweight heroine Cannie Shapiro declaring herself “dumb” and “fat” — “so fat that nobody would ever love me again and so dense that I couldn’t see it.” By the end of the novel, having survived several traumatic events and won the love of a good man, she is no thinner than before but can “see it all differently”:

My legs were sturdy and strong, not fat or ungainly. My breasts now had a purpose besides stretching out my sweaters and making it hard to find a non-beige bra. Even my waist and hips, riddled with silvery stretch marks, suggested strength, and told a story. I might be a big girl, I reasoned, but it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. I was a safe harbor and a soft place to rest [...] I looked at [the body] that had caused me such shame, and smiled.

Good in Bed and its imitators are dramas of the mind, not the body. Body gives way to body image.

Big Ray, The MiddlesteinsButter and Heft, by contrast, focus on the physical. At five years old, Edie Herzen weights 62 pounds. Her limbs are “disarmingly solid.” She is “a cement block of flesh” who “breathes too heavy, like someone’s gassy old uncle after a meal.” A few pages and five and a half decades later, Edie Herzen has become Edie Middlestein. She weighs over 330 pounds and is suffering from a rotting thigh, a side effect of diabetes, which is in turn a side effect of obesity. Ray’s son, the narrator of Big Ray,describes the way his father shrank as he gained weight: “all the extra pounds […] started to compress his body and, not long before my father died, he was only about 5’6’’ tall” — four inches shorter than he was as a young man. Arthur Opp has to rock backwards and forward several times before he can rise from a sofa. Butter uses the disabled parking space at his school because he can’t walk the half-mile from the regular car park. Like Ray and Edie, he has diabetes.

¤

An obese body is never, any longer, just an obese body, in life or in fiction, but an embodiment of an epidemic, an image of our society. Butter begins with its narrator sitting at home watching television and thinking about the indignity of air travel, “cramming my ass into one of those itty-bitty excuses for an airline seat.” In front of him sits an “empty candy dish […] a half-melted tub of ice cream, and a bag of Doritos.” He eats a Dorito and “the flavors [explode] over my tongue – salty, sweet, spicy – everything I liked rolled into one […] the crunch filled my ears”. There’s specificity here, an attention to what it might feel like, sound like, taste like to inhabit one particular body, mouth first. Butter is thinking about airplane seats because he has just watched a television report about airlines charging obese passengers for two seats, and he feels discriminated against. Elsewhere in the novel, Butter’s position as merely one obese body among millions is represented by Fit and Fabulous, the weight loss camp he attends every summer. He is desperate to avoid “the institution,” a year-round boarding school for obese students.

In Heft, Arthur Opp describes how he has been able to spend a decade without leaving his house:

There are companies now for everything. One for bringing you your books and newspapers and magazines. One for sending you supplies you might need from a pharmacy. Even one that lets you order your groceries online and then brings them to your house for you […] They have everything, this company — everything you could possibly think of. Prepared foods & raw ingredients. Desserts & breakfasts & wine & toilet paper. Cheese & deli meat & ice cream & cake & bagels & Pop’ems.

Modern society conspires to keep Arthur obese, providing him with the excitement of choice and the ease of access that means he has no need to take even the exercise involved in going to the nearest store. In The Middlesteins, Edie drives, in under an hour, from a McDonalds drive-thru to a Burger King drive-thru and then to a Chinese restaurant, discarding at each the empty packaging from the place before. Butter goes on a disconcertingly similar binge, scoffing two burgers, fries, a milkshake, and an apple pie in a parking lot before deciding he has “an appetite for Mexican food” and driving off to his favorite taco stall — and from there to a chicken joint and then to a teriyaki takeaway. With so much food available, who could expect these characters not to be fat?

Butter and The Middlesteins emphasize the abundance and availability of food in modern America and register that economics, money, as well as appetite, determines what and how much we eat. Butter lives in a part of Arizona where “seeing a teenager driving a BMW” — as he does — “is about as common as seeing a one-armed cactus. We’re everywhere.” The Middlesteins may not be as rich as they used to be, but they’re comfortable enough for money to play little or no part in determining the food they buy. Part of the reason Butter and Edie eat so much, and become so fat, is that they can afford to.

This isn’t the narrative we usually hear about obesity and economics. In the developed world, poverty and obesity are positively correlated; obesity is — and is usually portrayed — as a consequence of too little money rather than too much, part of the world where hot dogs and Big Gulps are cheaper than fruits and vegetables. In the 2009 film Precious, the title character’s obesity goes almost entirely unremarked, as if — as the product of abuse and unrelenting disadvantage — she couldn’t be anything other than obese. In Butter and The Middlesteins, by contrast, obesity is the result of plenty. By setting their novels in such a narrow and privileged socio-economic class, Lange and Attenberg limit themselves to a very one-sided portrayal of the effect of money on diet.

Heft presents a more nuanced account of the relationship between appetite, economics and fat. Arthur, like Edie and Butter, is rich enough to buy as much food as he wants, and of whatever kind. By the end of the novel, Arthur has started to lose weight, and there is the suggestion that his financial security will enable his weight loss in the future, as it has enabled his weight gain in the past. Resolving to eat healthily, Arthur fills a bowl “with beautiful fruit. Apples & pears & bananas & mangoes & grapes, red and green. Kiwis like stars on the top. Blueberries & strawberries & oranges & grapefruit.” Butter could access this glut of fruit, if he chose; so could Edie Middlestein. Kel Keller, the 17-year-old son of one of Arthur’s former pupils, and the second narrator of Heft, could not.

Kel’s mother Chantal is an unemployed alcoholic. His father left when he was four. What Kel and Chantal eat is determined by what they can afford: Cheez Doodles and chocolate and frozen microwaveable vegetables. Kel notices that his mother has been getting “steadily heavier”; it’s a heaviness not caused by the blowout binges indulged in by Arthur, Butter and Edie, but by cheap, nutritionally empty food, consumed day after day, year after year.

Kel’s friends at the exclusive school to which he has a scholarship have a different diet. At his girlfriend Lindsay’s house, Lindsay declares herself “starving” and raids her family’s fridge (“cheese and apples and leftover pasta with tomatoes and olives in it”) and then the pantry (“chips and Oreos and peanut butter”). Later she urges Kel to eat eggs, whole milk, and meat; it’s a far cry from Cheez Doodles. Lindsay and Kel are both sporty adolescents with substantial appetites — economics, not appetite, determines the difference in their diets.

¤

Heft, The Middlesteins, and Butter make it clear that contemporary society — with its online groceries, drive-thru food joints, and all-you-can-eat buffets — encourages the obesity of its protagonists. It’s surprising, therefore, just how anomalous these protagonists feel. Despite Butter’s references to Fit and Fabulous and “the institution,” he is, for most of the novel, the odd one out. His schoolmates are conventionally attractive and his parents are slim and health-conscious, eating egg white omelettes and lean turkey for breakfast while he chomps through pecan waffles, Canadian bacon, and poached eggs. Butter lives in Arizona, a state in which almost 25 percent of high schools students are obese, but — the appearance of his best friend from Fit and Fabulous aside — he appears as an exception.

Four generations of Middlesteins use food as a form of communication, but Edie is the only obese one among them. Kel’s mother may be getting fat from cheap food and too much alcohol, but Kel and Arthur’s narratives remain separate, and they never meet one another. Arthur, trapped in his own half of Heft, sees no one but the extremely thin girl who comes to clean his house and the picture-perfect family that lives next door. Big Ray is presented as half a memoir of the narrator’s childhood and half a biography of his father Ray; this narrow focus, added to the fact that Ray is almost as reclusive as Arthur, means that we think of Ray as an oddity rather than as one of millions of obese American citizens.

It is true that although 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese, a relatively small number is super obese. But these novels show Ray, Arthur, Butter, and Edie not at one end of a continuum, but as existing in a separate category, divided from their “normal” friends and family. We see the various societal factors that contribute to obesity, but by representing obesity as anomaly, Big Ray, Heft, Butter, and The Middlesteins shift the focus from society to the individual. Rather than ask how contemporary society enables obesity, these novels ask what is wrong with these particular individuals, why they and not others are victims of an obesity-enabling society. If the personal is political in these books, it is so only fleetingly.

Perhaps it is churlish to criticise this bias. Novels are, after all, better known for their ability to illuminate individual psychology than to offer, say, a dissection of the laws governing food production or a precise analysis of weight distribution across socioeconomic classes. In their focus on the psychology of obesity, Kimball, Moore, Lange, and Attenberg honor the specificity of their characters’ bodies, minds and situations, rather than making them spokespersons for an issue or polls of a debate.

Emphasising Ray, Arthur, Butter, and Edie’s difference paradoxically deflects attention from their bodies, turning their fatness into a metaphor. But whereas Shakespeare and Goncharov used obesity to embody an individual’s personality, here obesity is a metaphor for something more universal. The obese body becomes a tool to explore not only — not even primarily — the physical experience of obesity in contemporary society, but also the sensation of being out of place in the world. The obese characters in these novels literally do not fit their surroundings. Ray stops driving because he is so fat he cannot fit behind a steering wheel. Butter has to use a specially built double-size desk at school. Arthur can no longer climb the stairs of his house. The fat person in these novels is at once outsider and everyman, the latter both because the average American is fat, and getting fatter, and because being an outsider — the odd one out, unlovable, looked upon with disgust — is a universal fear. The obese body is one through which we can confront questions much older than the late 20th century: What if we are the odd ones out? What if, merely by existing, we are causing others to laugh and point at us?

¤

There is, however, a more topical metaphor at work here, one that accounts for the appearance of these four novels now, in the second decade of the 21st century. The obese body is an ideal vehicle through which to explore the dynamics of consumption and regulation, a subject that feels particularly urgent as America, along with much of the world, struggles to pull itself out of recession. The obese protagonists in Heft, Big RayThe Middlesteins, and Butter embody pre-recession attitudes towards consumption — or perhaps more accurately, how we want to see pre-recession attitudes towards consumption: unregulated, irresponsible, heedless of the harm we cause ourselves and those around us.

Susan Sontag suggested that we used cancer in this way, as a metaphor for “economic catastrophe: that of unregulated, abnormal, incoherent growth,” growth that is “out of control.” She argued that we have made cancer into an image of “the negative behavior of 20th-century homo economicus.” The obese body operates in a similar way, becoming an instrument of retrospective self-flagellation, as we identify ourselves with and distance ourselves from the individual who consumes and consumes and consumes, investing in objects rather than emotions, unable to realize what is enough and what is too much. Butter and The Middlesteins do not offer a sophisticated analysis of the economics of obesity; instead they, like Big Ray and Heft, use the obese body to represent an economic climate. Big Ray’s attitude to food is merely an intensification of his more general attitude: he “never felt like he had enough of anything. He always wanted more of everything — money, food, shoes, clothing, magazines, hair, children, etc.”

Sontag suggests that the language we use to talk about cancer makes the sufferer bear “ultimate responsibility both for falling ill and for getting well.” Where obesity is concerned, the placing of responsibility upon the individual is overt. Big Ray, Heft,Butter, and The Middlesteins all conform to the mainstream depiction of obesity as a consequence of lack of will power, rather than a natural state or a positive choice. Arthur is typical in his confession that:

Each night I tell myself that it will be different and new […] Tomorrow perhaps I will go for a walk, or jog in place […]

I never do.

Each night in bed I repeat the promise […] Please let me eat well tomorrow. Please let me be healthy and good. Please let me lose weight.

It’s not surprising that these four novels portray fatness as inherently unhealthy and unattractive. The obese body has to be these things, if it is to function as a metaphor both for the outsider and for economic guilt. In using the obese body in this way, HeftThe Middlesteins, Big Ray, and Butter invoke the conventional obesity discourse — that is, of obesity as undesirable and unnatural, both the cause and the product of psychological distress.

But another discourse exists, one which disputes the terms and the values we apply to fatness. This discourse, used in various permutations by fat activists and in fat studies, rejects the medicalization of fatness, refusing to see it as an illness, or the cause of illness, and objecting to the use of labels such as overweight (over what weight?) and obese. In her foreword to The Fat Studies Reader, fat acceptance activist Marilyn Wann writes about what fat studies is — and isn’t:

If you believe that fat people could (and should) lose weight, then you are not doing fat studies — you are part of the $58.6 billion-per-year weight-loss industry or its vast customer base.

If you believe that fat is a disease and that fat people cannot possibly enjoy good health or long life, then you are not doing fat studies.

If you believe that thin is inherently beautiful and fat is obviously ugly, then you are not doing fat studies work either. You are instead in the realm of advertising, popular media, or the more derivative types of visual art — in other words, propaganda.

Kimball, Moore, Attenberg, and Lange probably would not see themselves as writing within the fat-hating, body-shaming discourse that Wann identifies. But their novels make many of the same assumptions. Butter, Edie, and Ray all suffer from obesity-related health problems, which lead to the death of the latter two. It is seen as imperative that all four characters lose weight in order to enjoy a fulfilling and healthy life; all four are unhappy, and eat to compensate for emotional dissatisfaction. Unlike chick lit novels such as Good in Bed, where fat characters have to change their attitude to be comfortable in their bodies, the fat characters here have to change their bodies if they are to be comfortable in the world.

It’s troubling that these novels take such a uniform and conventional approach to obesity. If it is not to become quickly sterile, an obesity-focused literary genre must expand to include examples that show other ways of talking about and being fat. This is not to say that Big Ray, Heft, The Middlesteins, and Butter are not doing something unusual and important — they are asserting the body’s importance to fiction and demanding that we pay close attention to corporeal experience and the ways in which the physical shapes the psychological. The difficulty of writing about the body is not simply that novelists’ language tends to describe the mental rather than the physical, as Woolf argues; it is the impossibility of maintaining the body as the body, rather than as a symbol of something else. The obese body here becomes a battleground between the tangible and the figurative, urgent in itself yet at the same time an irresistible metaphor through which we can confront both timeless and specifically 21st-century fears. This tension is irreconcilable. The more these four novels use the obese body as a metaphor, the less they tell us about obesity as a modern phenomenon.

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