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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era