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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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times