Whether talking about Twitter or Twixes, our incontinence knows no bounds

Rachel Cooke takes on BBC2's "Fat Season".

Welcome to the World of Weight Loss
The Men Who Made Us Thin
BBC2
 
I wonder why Vanessa Engle (Women, Jews, Walking With Dogs) felt moved to make a documentary about diet clubs (Welcome to the World of Weight Loss, 21 August). They seem to me to be far too easy a target for such a subtle and talented director. After all, it’s hardly news that the leaders of Weight Watchers or Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness Clubs infantilise their members, praising them loudly for every pound lost, handing them pathetic little certificates when they reach their target size. (“Well done, Ginny!” said the leader of the East Finchley branch of Slimming World to a woman who had just shared her horror at her discovery that pine - apple added to cottage cheese made it a whole lot more naughty. “So, can we give her a big round of applause, please?”).
 
Nor is it much of a revelation that women who are fat enough – or imagine they are fat enough – to join these Moonie-ish clubs are often desperately unhappy; contentment and a desire to be weighed in public appear to be mutually exclusive. And the tedium and stupidity of the jargon! We are talking “portion pots”, “treat days” and “brown foods”. Forty minutes in, I found myself looking forward for the first time ever to my twice-weekly bolt around the park. Beneath my backside – not small, exactly, but not the size of Jupiter, either – the sofa had begun to feel positively itchy.
 
Of course, even a worse-than-usual Engle film is still miles better than your average Channel 4 “shock doc” (the titles of which alone make me want to throw up). For all her beadiness, she is an inordinately kind filmmaker, non-judgemental and always able to connect with her interviewees. It must have been tempting to ask Joan and Sharon, two sisters with a Ghanaian background and an almost religious devotion to the diktats of Weight Watchers, why they insisted on spending their “treat day” at an all-you-caneat Chinese buffet (with the emphasis on “all-you-can-eat” rather than bean sprouts) but somehow she desisted. (Sharon, by the way, was still so vast she had to walk with a frame.) They were enjoying themselves and clearly Engle was reluctant to spoil their fun.
 
Over and over, she threw her subjects a life raft – or at least the odd water wing. In a huge, gleaming house in Dulwich, south London, a fortysomething Weight Watcher called Penelope took Engle through her extensive designer wardrobe: Alexander McQueen, Miu Miu, Stella McCartney. On my sofa, bottom shifting, I began to feel more restless. Penelope, who did not look at all fat to me, obviously just needed something more important to worry about than herself. Engle, though, was a little more generous. Did Penelope think her determination to drop a dress size or two was perhaps born of a fear of getting older? Looking grateful, Penelope conceded that this was doubtless the case.
 
BBC2 seems to be having something of a Fat Season at the moment. Earlier this month, it brought us podgy kids in India (they’re like podgy kids anywhere, except a little bit late to the party). This week, it was Engle’s programme and the third part of Jacques Peretti’s latest series, The Men Who Made Us Thin (Thursdays, 9pm). In documentary-making terms, Peretti is what you might get if you crossed Adam Curtis with Louis Theroux, by which I mean he is a something of a conspiracy theorist, always going on – whoo-ooh! – about cabals of scary men who take decisions “behind closed doors”, but also the kind of chap who smilingly accompanies a Swedish man to the loo so he can watch him empty the contents of his stomach by means of a long, plastic tube (in bariatric surgery circles, this, so we were told, is the very latest thing).
 
I am not sure I bought all of his thesis – I’m not convinced that it’s possible for people to be fat and healthy, let alone happy – but Peretti was surely on to something when he suggested that, quite soon, even people who want to lose just the odd few pounds will be asking their friendly local surgeon to shrink their stomachs, funds allowing.
 
This, alas, is the way the world is going. We would rather be controlled than control ourselves. Our incontinence, whether we are talking about Twitter or Twixes, simply knows no bounds.
Fat loss is getting more extreme. Photo: George Simhoni / Gallery Stock

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear