Review: Lionel Shriver’s ‘Big Brother’

Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver, HarperCollins, RRP £16.99/$26.99, 384 pages

At an airport in the American Midwest, our narrator Pandora, a wealthy entrepreneur, is waiting to meet Edison, her slightly older brother. He’s a failing jazz pianist. She hasn’t seen him for four years. Even though she’s rich and he’s pretty much destitute, she still idolises him. He’s the cool, unconventional sibling. Her big brother. And then she sees a morbidly obese man being pushed along in a wheelchair. It’s him. It’s a horrifying moment. She doesn’t know what to say. Or, it turns out, what to do.

Lionel Shriver captures this moment, and the following scenes, very sharply. When someone becomes hugely fat, nobody knows what to say. Do you pretend not to notice? Something bad has befallen the person. Something self-inflicted too. Pandora takes Edison back to the home she shares with her husband, Fletcher, and his two children. Fletcher, like Edison, is a failed male. He’s an underemployed carpenter living on the proceeds of Pandora’s business. But he’s not fat. On the contrary, he’s addicted to exercise. He’s on a permanent diet. He’s finally banished every bit of excess fat from his body, even the tiny amount he’d had around his waist. “I’d cherished that little roll,” Pandora tells us.

Some background on Pandora: she wants a normal life. Having grown up in Hollywood, where her father was a libidinous, self-deluding television star, and where her mother might, she thinks, have committed suicide, or might just have stepped in front of a truck by accident, Pandora has sought the ordinary. She lives in Iowa. She ran a catering firm. Then she had a business idea. Her new company, which produces novelty dolls, makes millions. And now her obese brother is clattering around her house.

Shriver perfectly characterises Edison, this man who was once charismatic and now hates himself. He’s always trying to be cool, to distract everybody from the fact that he’s gross. He disrupts Pandora’s fragile household – the life she has carefully constructed with her quiet, desperate husband and his two kids. Poor Fletcher, who makes flimsy, neurotic furniture, is now permanently anxious. What if Edison were to sit down on one of his treasured pieces? He does, of course. It breaks, of course. Fletcher freaks out, of course.

What happened to Edison? Why is he so fat? Why has he jettisoned all his self-respect? That’s what you keep asking yourself. And that’s what Pandora wants to know too. But it’s difficult. When someone embarks on a programme of eating themselves to death – which, we begin to see, Edison is doing – it’s hard to communicate with them about it.

Gradually, Pandora pieces things together. She charts her brother’s life. As a young man, he was full of hope. He wanted to live life to the max. He took risks. He did well – for a while. He dosed himself with self-congratulatory drink and drugs. His wife left him. He didn’t realise that, at a certain point, you have to draw your horns in. He overreached, became obnoxious to people, got into debt. On several levels, he’s a metaphor for America. He’s too big. But not, as we can see, too big to fail.

I liked this novel. Shriver writes well, and with empathy. Her own older brother, Greg, was “5ft 7in and pushing 400lb” when he died, and she wrote in this paper of how “the issue of obesity combines the social with the profoundly private. Fat seemed like my material.”

All the way through this novel she’s telling us that heavy consumption is not the answer, even though our consumer society seems to be telling us that it is. Consuming too much, after a while, is counter-productive. It’s what we do when we’ve run out of ideas. And she’s right about another thing too – it’s not just that overeating makes you fat. It’s that being fat makes you want to overeat. It changes your metabolism. It’s hard to put the process into reverse. It looks like Edison is doomed.

Or is he? Pandora is faced with a choice. She can try to save her brother – really get to the bottom of why he’s fat, force him to go on a diet, support him every step of the way. Or she can drive him back to the airport and let him get on with the “slow-motion suicide-by-pie” that has become his life.

The first course of action would be horribly disruptive. The second would be fatal. Through Pandora, Shriver tells the story well; by the end, we see what a difficult choice she has.

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