Few novelists go on the attack like Lionel Shriver. Whether the topic is teenaged killers or domestic terrorism or the U.S. health care system, Shriver makes every carefully chosen word of every sentence pack a predatory bite. In her new work, Big Brother, Shriver takes on obesity and our culture’s obsession with it.
Pandora is a success in Cedar Rapids, having started a pull-string doll business that allows the rich to create customized toys of their loved ones – endowed with their most annoying catchphrases – for yuks. Her brother, Edison, a New York City jazz pianist, has fallen upon hard times and is coming for a visit. He’s also fat. Tipping four bills fat. When Edison is pushed off the plane in a wheelchair, the reader can’t help but be as galled by his appearance as Pandora is.
“…Edison?” I peered into the round face, its features stretched as if painted on a balloon. Searching the brown eyes, nearly black now so hooded, I think I was trying not to recognize him. The longish hair was lank, too dull. But the keyboard grin was unmistakable—if sulfurous from tobacco, and tinged with a hint of melancholy along with the old mischief. “Sorry, but I didn’t see you.”
Big Brother is broke and in need of a house and home, which he promptly begins to eat Pandora’s family out of. Edison’s way of filling up a room with both his personality and his girth grates on her peevish, health-nut husband Fletcher, whom Edison derisively nicknames Feltcher.
All of this is a great plot setup that presents an array of targets for Shriver to obliterate with her knife-sharp prose. There’s even a lengthy send-up of the TV sitcoms of the seventies, the world in which Pandora and Edison came of age as the real-life children of an Archie-Bunker-esque TV star. The show’s background (cheesy theme song lyrics included) is richly imagined and fertile ground for Pandora’s under-the-radar, feminist witticisms like this one:
Extraterrestrials who picked up the airwaves emanating from the United States in the sixties and early seventies would have concluded that our species was much like salmon, and once the females had borne their young nature had no use for them and they promptly expired.
Pandora must choose between helping her brother lose weight or staying with her husband, who’s skeptical of Edison’s willpower and disdainful of the obese in general. Shriver makes this choice easy (perhaps too easy) for her narrator as Fletcher has surprisingly few redeeming qualities. So for one year, Pandora and Edison move in together and live on packets of protein powder and water. Mix in hunger’s delirium, the fog of sibling co-dependency, and more than a dash of incestuous tension, and it becomes clear what this novel is really about: the complicated dynamics of an unusually close brother-and-sisterhood. This passage compares Edison and Pandora’s commitment to each other to matrimony.
Again I was glad; if my brother was leery of making proclamations to strangers he was coming to appreciate the sinister immediacy of the commitment—for the first morning after we accepted a set of keys the party was over. Funny, the only thing that bugged me a little was his neglecting to correct Novacek’s misapprehension that Edison and I were married.
As Pandora drives Edison toward an improbable success, she sees their joint achievement as a form of communication, a way to make people understand the depth and the singularity of her love for her brother.
So far I’ve played down the pleasures of narrowing my own mortal coil on the horizontal axis, not wanting to seem a petty slave to women’s glossies. But once again burning with wide-eyed admiration for my brother, well—that didn’t feel petty. Maybe it is impossible to inhabit your own achievements, because you get attached to the quest itself, its drive, its addictive amphetamine buzz and powering sense of purpose, so that any mission’s fulfillment feels like a loss, all that energy and direction replaced with a stillness within whose halo strivers rapidly grow restless. Yet it may be possible to glory in the achievements of people you love—in the fact that my brother’s beauty, always perceptible to me in some measure, was once again made manifest for everyone to see.
Ironically, the novel drags a bit of it’s own flab and becomes a tad overreliant on Pandora’s lengthy, and at times, repetitive exposition. And the obesity-as-a-metaphor-for-sibling-relationships is never fully developed so we’re left wondering whether this is a book about the Big or a book about the Brother. There’s also a plot twist at the end that is a distant echo of the powerful denouement of We Need To Talk About Kevin, only here, it’s deployed to deleterious effect, and the reader will probably have to ignore that it ever happened to fully enjoy the funny, ultimately redemptive story of a little sister devoting a year of her life to saving her brother’s.