A hallmark of religion is that there are rules, particularly about sex, money and food. Probably because sex, money and food hold such power over us. Consider the Church’s traditional list of cardinal, or deadly, sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Sex, money and food are mixed up in there, either explicitly, or implicitly.
Lionel Shriver takes on gluttony — whether that takes the form of gorging, starving or extreme delicacy — in her latest novel, Big Brother. It’s a dystopian novel, though without a zombie in sight, just us, who, as the narrator, Pandora — yes, like the myth — observes, “have forgotten how to eat.”
The story is set in corn-fed Iowa. Pandora is locked in a perverse love triangle (well, more of a rectangle when you count food) with her husband, Fletcher, a bike-riding, no-carbs, fat-hating fanatic, and her brother, Edison, a once famed jazz pianist who lost his last gig after devouring the buffet at a wedding party. If there is a box of powdered sugar in the pantry, Edison will eat it, plain. As for Fletcher, his daughter, Cody, describes him this way:
“Poor guy’s been on this raw food jag lately, and all I ever see him eat is carrots. Finally got him to admit his jaw aches.”
Edison arrives in Iowa for what Pandora assumes will be a short stay. When she first sees him rolled out of the plane in a wheelchair, Pandora doesn’t recognize Edison as her brother. She soon understands how impossible his life has become. He has eaten himself out of house and home. And job. And has come to take over hers.
In Lionel’s novel, the fat and the skinny, the over-and under-fed, are all in trouble.
Fletcher wants him and his grease-spattered life gone. Pandora wants to save him, and drop an unwelcome thirty pounds while she’s at it. She sounds a lot like most of us who approach Lent as a kind of buy-one, get-one-free: fasting as weight-loss plan. So she rents an apartment, moves in with Edison and puts them both on a liquid diet. Like cough syrup and children’s Tylenol, the product comes in flavors. Pandora and Edison call it Up-Chuck, at first with disgust and then with devotion. Pandora explains the sensation of starvation, ”Well, sometimes you’re a little fuzzy, but others, you focus like a laser. We’ve read dozens of books, sometimes in one sitting. There’s a purity…even a high…”
When Fletcher accuses her of turning their diet into a religious quest, she and a giddy Edison begin an improvised version of the 23rd Psalm:
“Hunger is my shepherd, I shall not want,” Edison intoned, reclining. “It maketh me lie down with long novels. It leadeth me to drink still water. —“
“Skipping lunch restoreth my soul,” I picked up gamely, grateful for the little bit of Sunday school we were dragged to before my mother gave up. “It leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for the avoidance of Type 2 diabetes sake.”
“Yea though I walk through the valley of Doritos,” said Edison, “I shall fear no weight gain —“
“For my Upchuck art with me. My laxatives and my artificially sweetened herbal tea, they comfort me.”
Edison frowned. “Some shit about a table…?”
“Thou preparest a table before me,” I supplied.
“Which is my enemy!”
In Lionel’s novel, the fat and the skinny, the over-and under-fed, are all in trouble. Because there is no sense of feast and fast, of seasons, of the ritual order by which food becomes both sustenance and delight, community and culture, they are lost in the chaos that is 24-hour supermarkets, and all-you-can eat buffets.