By Karen Brady
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Lionel Shriver speaks of elephants in rooms everywhere in her latest novel, “Big Brother” – a zany yet grave and tremendously affecting look at how unacknowledged problems can wreak havoc in a family.
Her vehicle is obesity – our disease du jour – and, as her protagonist, Pandora, tells us, “Any story about a sibling goes back far indeed.”
Edison Appaloosa, “a jazz pianist of some note,” is that sibling – Pandora’s revered older brother and such a world traveler she hasn’t seen him in four years. Now, with “a little gap in my schedule,” the dashing and ever-fit Edison is coming from his Manhattan home base to stay for a bit with Pandora and her family in quiet little New Holland, Iowa.
What they don’t know is that the talented and debonair Edison has – in the last 48 months – gained well over 200 pounds.
“Yo, don’t recognize your brother?” he calls to Pandora at the airport as two flight attendants wheel the 44-year-old Edison into baggage claim “in an extra-wide wheelchair.”
Edison is close to 400 pounds, and Pandora is dumbfounded. She thinks of how Fletcher, her loving if staid spouse, had been against harboring “Mr. Important International Jazz Pianist” in the first place – and how she had been adamant: “Fletcher and I were up to our eyeballs in sensible, and a splash of anarchy was overdue.” Alas, this was not the sort of anarchy Pandora had in mind.
Shriver is both playful and serious here. It won’t be Edison’s girth that will disrupt his sister’s family – it will be his behavior, his obsession with food now so great he is out of control. He cannot help but eat all the food in the house, leaving crumbs and smears everywhere, including all over himself, and damaging furniture not sturdy enough to hold him.
Literally too fat to work, he is out of funds and hits his sister up for some “pocket change” – money she can easily afford to give him due to her surprisingly successful business (of creating dolls that look like and speak just like their intended recipients, each a gift of “ridicule paired with affection”).
“Yet what bothered me … wasn’t giving Edison a ‘loan,’ ” Pandora (now an enabler) muses:
“So far, no one, not even my impolitic stepson, had addressed my brother’s dimensions head-on. I myself had not once alluded to Edison’s weight to his face, and as a consequence felt slightly insane. That is, I pick him up at the airport and he is so – he is so FAT that I look straight at him and don’t recognize my own brother, and now we’re all acting as if this is totally ordinary. The decorousness, the conversational looking the other way, made me feel a fraud and a liar, and the diplomacy felt complicit.”
Avoiding the obvious has the interesting effect of highlighting the food “faults” of Fletcher and Pandora – Fletcher’s that of depriving himself in the name of fitness; Pandora’s that of not losing 20 pounds of plumpness.
“Between exercise and his stringent diet, my husband had lost the tiny roll at his middle for which my own mashed potatoes and muffins had been to blame,” Pandora tells herself. “Yet I’d cherished that little roll, which had softened him in a larger sense.”
Food of course is but a symptom here. There are deeper issues at play. Edison and Pandora share a bizarre childhood with a father, Hugh Halfdanarson, known to all of America as Travis Appaloosa, star of a now-defunct television series, “Joint Custody.” To this day, the monomaniacal Travis is consumed with the past and his fake TV family.
Edison feeds this, using his father’s TV surname professionally, and Pandora often remembers thinking, when “Joint Custody” was canceled years ago, “they should have kept filming the show and canceled our real family.” Left to their own devices (despite another sibling, the wonderfully named Solstice), Edison’s and Pandora’s relationship verges on the symbiotic.
Thus dysfunction, in a real sense, is no stranger to Edison and Pandora – but it is to Fletcher and his teenagers, Tanner and Cody. And there will come a time when Edison goes too far, deliberately sitting in and shattering a chair hand-hewn by Fletcher, a chair Fletcher had asked him never to sit in.
The gloves come off. Fletcher tells Pandora, “You keep acting as if your brother’s the victim, the poor fat guy. But he is victimizing us.”
Pandora comes up with a solution – not a sensible solution like counseling or surgery or other medical intervention or Weight Watchers or Overeaters Anonymous … No, Pandora chooses to do it herself – moving away from her family, with Edison, to a rental community where the siblings embark upon a punishing powder-and-water regime that soon becomes boring to them – and, sometimes, the reader.
The same can be said for some of Shriver’s riffs on food, food and more food, and on some of the “heavy cats” Edison has purportedly played jazz with. Yet these are but small quibbles in the face of the larger picture: Outlandish as Pandora’s scheme to run the weight-loss show herself may seem, Shriver gets it right.
She gets the quest for control right. She gets the upheaval in the family right. She gets Edison’s denial right, his unwillingness to get better, his professing not to care. She gets today’s societal justifications (“everybody does it”) in one wonderful scene during which Pandora and Edison go to Walmart and meet a man who tells them, “the right to lie to yourself is what makes this country free.”
Once Edison gets on board with Pandora’s program, Shriver also knows the dangers inherent in success:
“I feared for Edison … the anticlimax of losing 223 pounds could be soul-destroying,” Pandora says. “My brother never made any reference to his life on the other side of this weight-loss project. How cataclysmically would all the balls he’d left in the air in New York come crashing down once he’d met his goal and discovered that being 163 (pounds) didn’t really solve anything?”
Clearly, this is a subject dear to Shriver’s heart – she who generally creates characters we are unlikely to have as friends (in particular, the murderous Kevin in Shriver’s Orange Prize-winning novel, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin”).
Pandora, Edison and Fletcher are good people fully rendered, and cared about, here – with Fletcher’s children and even Travis not far behind. And, if this were all there is to “Big Brother,” it would be enough. A bit banal for Shriver, but enough.
The beauty is, there is more – much more – and anyone who stops reading “Big Brother” before its denouement will miss Shriver’s point. It is a point both sad and strong, and more than anything underscores Shriver’s enviable ability not only to create, but to speak her own soul.
By Lionel Shriver
374 pages, $26.99
Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.