Revelation without contemplation: the problem with Navel Gazing

Anne H Putnam's memoir about obesity reviewed.

Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest for a Size Normal
Anne H Putnam
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £12.99

The naturally svelte among you – for example, people of the New Statesman culture desk, with whom I would at some point like to have a quiet word about why I was given this book to review – will not know the fundamental truth about dieting. It is very, very boring. You wake up hungry, and instead of grabbing whatever’s to hand, you begin to have a long, bitter, endless internal argument about the difference between what you want to eat and what you should eat. This continues all day, as you alternately applaud yourself for eating only an apple at lunch and berate yourself for giving in to a mid-afternoon chocolate bar.

What you never have, as a dieter, is a casual relationship to food. Hey, it’s there. I might eat it. I might not. Every mouthful is conflicted: a source of immense pleasure and immense shame all at once.

If you have never experienced the boredom of dieting, Anne Putnam’s Navel Gazing can help, by re-creating that boredom in a handy portable “book” format. I understand that the title is supposed to be a cute reference to the author’s struggle with body image, but it’s also taken extremely literally. There are barely any characters other than the author and her stomach: Putnam’s dad and boyfriend occasionally poke their heads around the door, but otherwise it’s a one-woman-and-her-body show.

And what a body it is. At the start of the story, our heroine is a pudgy child struggling in a family of thin people. Only her father understands her, and together they go to cheap restaurants for FaDaBoTi – father-daughter bonding time – over enormous plates of Philly cheesesteaks and Häagen-Dazs ice cream. (Incidentally, the American slang is enough to make British readers feel nauseous all on its own. I just can’t respect someone who refers to farts as “boops” or writes: “I’m more than a little obsessed with asparagus, despite the fact I have the smelly pee gene like whoa.”)

Eventually, by the age of 17, Putnam is pushing 20 stone and her father has the perfect solution: they should both have gastric bypass surgery. This is dropped into the narrative like it’s no big deal, but – to me, at least – it was jaw-dropping. Dangerous major surgery that means you can never eat more than a few tablespoons of solids at a time, on pain of immediate expulsion of that food from whichever orifice is nearest? At 17?

To the surprise of precisely no one, Putnam’s surgery doesn’t immediately solve all of her personal esteem problems, as she becomes fixated instead on the loose folds of flesh left by losing seven stone in a year. So she decides to have a series of “tucks”, taking four inches of skin from her arms and ten from her abdomen. “I had also wanted the full body lift – a belt incision around the entire midsection, which pulls up the ass as well as tightening the tummy – but [the doctor] didn’t think I needed it.” The doctor did, however, chuck in a bit of liposuction.

After all this, Putnam at last begins to feel like a “normal” person, and even manages a relationship with some guy called Guy. Guy is introduced to the story as a sexually inept schmuck – a terrible kisser who gives her oral sex in a park in Rome on their first date. She describes the encounter to her friend Courtney thus: “It was . . . terrible. Courtney, seriously, it was so painful. I don’t know what he was doing but I’m, like, crippled. Maybe he used his teeth? I don’t know, but I was faking it so hard just to get him to stop.” I must pause here to note that Guy then becomes her long-term boyfriend. I find this incredible.

The bad-park-sex incident is indicative of this book’s dominant mode – revelation without contemplation. The experiences Putnam undergoes will be recognisable enough to any reader who has felt the judgemental eyes of the McDonald’s staff as she ostentatiously opts for the Diet Coke with that McNugget meal, like it makes a difference. But there is never any attempt to put them in a wider context.

Being fat is now a mundane experience – and in the west, within a few decades, it could be the default one. There are myriad political, feminist, social, cultural and biological implications of the obesity epidemic, all of which are entirely absent from Navel Gazing. Putnam’s conclusion is that she shouldn’t have assumed the surgery would solve all her problems. She is now “thinking about working on something else: changing my mind”. Bleurgh.

If you’re going to ignore everything outside your own story, then the story has to be exceptional, or exceptionally told. Sadly, Navel Gazing is neither.

An ice-cream van. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit