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.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.