Weight of the union: what fiction has to say about obesity

A new novel, “The Middlesteins” by Jami Attenberg, takes a compassionate look at America’s weight problem, and reveals a lot about ours.

In Paris, overweight Americans pound the streets. Sitting on a bench beneath the Eiffel Tower one muggy summer’s day, two glistening ladies begged me to make room. “I need to sit down,” one announced to the other. “Oh God, my legs are screaming!” Tourists from almost anywhere else are quick to point out the waddling metaphor: overfed, invasive, decadent America. Back home the symbolism is reversed. “It is a heartbreaking fact that people who are some of the most deprived in our society are living on an inadequate diet,” junior health minister Anna Soubry told The Telegraph last week. “Obviously, not everybody who is overweight comes from deprived backgrounds but that’s where the propensity lies.”

The first page of Jami Attenberg’s new novel, The Middlesteins, introduces “Little Edie Herzen, age five: not so little.” Edie is a thickset five-year-old, “a cement block of flesh” who “breathed too heavy, like someone’s gassy uncle.” She eats because her father eats: “He had starved on his long journey from Ukraine to Chicago eight years before,” the chronicling narrator explains, “and had never been able to fill himself up since.” If the irony, wit and cadence of the opening joke hadn’t made it clear already, her family is Jewish. The initially comic child is given a context, and her weight gains in significance along with the food she consumes. “She was not a whiner. She just wanted to be carried. She wanted to be carried and cuddled and fed salty liverwurst and red onion and warm rye bread.” Add pessimism to the humour and the picture is complete. “I’m tired,” Edie complains to her mother. “We’re all tired,” her mother replies. The only fat jokes in this book are already over.

Obesity raises questions. “Why are we so fat?” the New Yorker asked in 2009, following the declaration of a “global obesity epidemic” by the World Health Organisation. Last year the BBC Magazine ran a feature entitled “Why do parents let their kids get fat?” In Britain, apportioning the blame (or, describing the problem for the umpteenth time) is a popular sport. The BBC’s grammar is misleading. The headline has already knows who is responsible: bad parents. In response to Soudry’s comments, “Theodore Dalrymple” was quick to pre-empt any suggestion the obese have anyone to blame but themselves. Well, almost. Given most overweight people reside “where unemployment is an hereditary condition and the state is almost of Soviet predominance in the economy,” he blames the state too. Its apparatus is both too big and too small: “Food desertification is a symptom of the culinary ignorance, incompetence and indifference of a substantial minority of our population: ignorance, incompetence and indifference unopposed by any attempt of our educational system to counteract it, for example by teaching girls the elements of cookery.” Women are also to blame.

In Attenberg’s novel, unhealthy food is readily available. Skip forward fifty years and Edie weighs 332 pounds (23 stone). She is about to receive an arterial stent, and is caught creeping downstairs to claim the chips and dip she knows are waiting for her in the kitchen. Instead she finds her son Benny, already half in mourning for his dying mother, disinterestedly flipping through a Harry Potter book, waiting. He knows his mother mustn’t eat before her surgery. “I’m just getting some water,” Edie says. “And I’m just reading a book,” replies her son.

Attenberg reduces her scope from the societal to the personal: the question is not why are we fat, but why is Edie fat? The question troubles every Middlestein: the suburban ensemble blighted by their mother’s (wife’s, grandmother’s) inability to take care of herself. Edie has been ushered into “early-retirement” from her job for being too fat, her husband has left her and taken to internet dating. Her immigrant parents tried to cure every sadness with food (“Food was made of love, and love was made of food, and if it could stop a child from crying there was nothing wrong with that”), so Edie ate as her beloved father lay dying; she ate when she found herself pregnant. It is the psychological specificity of the novel form, complemented by Attenberg’s bighearted and lightly-spun narrative, that refuses to reduce the complexity of the problem. Edie is not only a product of social conditions: she has her own story. Fat is not all that she is.

“Edie has actually been a secret eater for decades,” Attenberg told the New York Times. “I don’t know if she would have ever actively chosen to come out about it, but her husband left her, and so there was an impetus that pushed her out in the world and forced her to meet new people. And ultimately she ends up being closest with people who serve her food.”

Even beyond the book, Edie and her family are spoken about more earnestly than in any number of newspaper articles, caricaturing a faceless class for whom “the microwave oven [is] the entire batterie de cuisine.” Restating unfalsifiable generalisations does not advance the discussion. Dalrymple repeats his point: “It is not the combination of poverty and the easy availability of fattening food that has produced the epidemic of obesity: rather it is a sense in these circumstances of meaninglessness, that nothing much matters.” Really? Are we starting to get somewhere: does self-worth, depression perhaps, play a role? Does Dalrymple regret the fact young people are growing up in a society which appears to have no use for them? No. Instead he recites the parable of the savage islanders who become rich on natural resources and devour their “crude” cuisine until it kills them. It is not the rapid vagaries of the global market, the “easy availability” of “Fanta by the caseload” (this semantic quicksilver: such food is not simply “available”, it is ruthlessly marketed at those most likely to succumb). It is inactivity and incorrigible bad habits that are killing “the poor”. Their behaviour produces their poverty, not the other way round. Attenberg’s novel attempts to foreground individual conscience: asking why it is, in an obesity-enabling culture, some grow large while others do not. It allows its subject the dignity to claim her own mistakes, and manages to do so without mindlessly restating tabloid wisdom.

The Middlesteins is published in the UK on 21 February (Serpent’s Tail, £11.99)

Summer at McCarren Park Pool in New York City. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era