I'll take the Oburger - the president at Five Guys in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cosying up to the Five Guys of the apocalypse is bad for your health – just ask Obama

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

Five Guys is a US fast-food chain that’s been high-profile there for some years now. This is for two reasons: way back in 2009, President Oburger – sorry, I mean Obama – made a televised visit to one of its burger joints in Washington, DC and since then he’s been subject to holding press conferences there whenever it’s too rainy for the Rose Garden. So politically influential has Five Guys become that when the Washington Examiner was scrabbling for objectors to the president’s new health insurance scheme – not, as you realise, a difficult task – it alighted on a franchisee owner of eight Five Guys outlets, who did indeed oblige by saying that he’d have to jack up his prices in order to pay the mandatory employers’ levy.

The second reason is that, sprouting out from its modest Virginian roots in the late 1980s, Five Guys has now spread – like the culinary equivalent of kudzu weed – to ensnare most of North America in its flocculent convolvulus. There are more than 1,000 branches operating in the United States and Canada and another opens every four days or so. One of the newest branches is in London, which means – as against our leaders’ tedious perseveration that ours is a global financial capital – that in terms of the Englishchomping world the city is, in effect, twinned with Bumfuck, Saskatchewan.

Given this column’s commitment to prying apart the buns of the political class, I rounded up three guys of my own and set out for this new outpost of the American last century. (The original “guys” were the founder’s children – that’s so wholesome it makes me want to barf and then eat my own barf . . . ) With its red-and-white checkerboard tiles, brown-paper sacks of potatoes “stored” in plain view, its counter service and redshirted hand patty cake-makers, Five Guys clearly is trying to go for retro. “This,” everything seems to proclaim, “is what burger joints were like when you were a kid back in Bumfuck and the Fonz was getting the jukebox to play by parking his denim ass on it.”

My eldest guy had warned of tremendous queues, so we went mid-afternoon and the place wasn’t too manic. Just as well, as I don’t think I could’ve borne the humiliation of seeing hip Londoners stand in line for fast food that, according to Men’s Health magazine, is waaay over the recommended daily calorie intake. Sod the poor employees – the diners need health insurance to eat there. It singled out the fries in particular as the gustatory equivalent of fracking – releasing great reserves of energy into the unsuspecting gastric economy – and remarked also on the woeful practice of adding egg to the bun dough, which makes for a particularly sweet and sickly encasement. But all of this sugaring the meaty pill pales in comparison with the soda dispensers, which offer no fewer than nine flavours of Coke and Fanta – oh, and unlimited refills. My guys pretty much majored in hyperglycaemia but even they gave up after a single Styrofoam water butt-full.

As for the artisanal burger, the guys were on the whole negative – but what do they know? I rather liked mine. Mushy-sweetie-bun? Check. Salty-crispy-fry? Check. Wilty-crunchy-lettuce? Check. Crunchy-friablebacon? Check. Processed-plasticky-cheese? Check. As I nyum-nyummed my way through this perfect encapsulation of the American way, the cymbals clashed, the drums boomed, the triangles tinged and drum majorettes’ knees agitated the hems of their pleated skirts prettily. Meanwhile, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, a bunch of hairy protesters screamed, “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids didja kill today?”

If Oburger had any meat between his buns, he’d release Chelsea Manning on executive order before he leaves office – but we all know he doesn’t and that his presidency, while in no wise as egregiously bad as the one that preceded it, still hasn’t stopped the flop of once-upstanding American civil liberties.

In his drive to avoid being perceived by his fickle and easily fed electorate as a halal chicken-eater, Obama cosies up to the Five Guys of the apocalypse in a truly nauseating fashion. He’s also gone for his own gender reassignment, as a red-blooded, red-meateating male; but it’s a mystery to me how he can stomach a bacon cheeseburger after the amount of shit he’s eaten since taking office. Still, as my old granny would say: better out than in; and he does consistently redress the balance – by talking shit as well. Yes, he can.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge