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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era