Review of “Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The novel as a literary form sometimes seems to be the exclusive property of the liberal mind. Perhaps this is because imagining oneself in another person’s place is not just the essence of literary creativity; it is the starting point of any public system of morals–of recognizing the rights and freedoms of others as equal to one’s own.

In his landmark 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, the legal philosopher John Rawls argued that we must be able to take other people’s interests as seriously as we take our own if we are to fashion just laws. He proposed a now-famous thought experiment to frame this problem–the “veil of ignorance.” Instead of thinking of laws in the here-and-now, from your highly particular perspective as you, you must be able to take a step back to a postulated “original position.” From behind the veil of ignorance, you can envision yourself having fared radically differently in the various lotteries that shaped your identity before you appeared as you–your gender, your health and body type, your talents and abilities, your parents’ wealth, and so forth.

This thought experiment, wittingly or not, has been behind all the liberal-led rights movements in the United States since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Whether it’s the systemic disadvantages of having been born black, female, gay, handicapped, or what have you, the removal of those disadvantages by law has turned on the privileged person’s ability to observe the less lucky and say, with conviction, That could be me.

To borrow from another, more famous legal philosopher, when you think of the the whole range of social types around you–from slave to master–and the legal protections each deserves, you must be able to imagine yourself as “the least of these.” If you were a slave, would you wish for laws that entrench your master’s power or laws to liberate you and give you a full life?

Well, we know from the case of Christianity that the liberal imagination risks falling into a pity trap. While it’s all well and good to promote the interests of those less able to defend themselves, the process taken to an extreme can erode and eventually dissolve the stronger individual’s capacity to act or even engage in coherent moral reasoning. This is one of the most obvious holes in the Christian ideal of self-abasement–if I sell all my possessions and give the money to the poor, meanwhile allowing myself to be clothed as the lilies of the field, neither toiling nor spinning, I have consciously chosen to become an idle, penniless vagrant–noble and pure of heart perhaps, but more of a burden than a blessing to anyone around me. I would stink up any room I walk into, which, like it or not, is a widely accepted argument against choosing vagrancy as a lifestyle.

I am not sure if the novelist Lionel Shriver sets out to write great literature, but a recent New Yorker profile says she is on the lookout for trouble in the human condition, which may amount to the same thing. The challenges involved in determining our moral obligations to others certainly give humans no end of trouble: What role does individual choice play in determining one’s desert of protections or alleviations? Do heroin addicts “deserve” public clinics where they can shoot up safely? Who is entitled to my unreserved moral compassion, or even plain old generosity?–Certainly I would make large sacrifices for my spouse or children, but what about cousins? Friendly associates? Complete strangers? It’s Jesus’s old question again: When it comes to treating neighbors justly, who is my neighbor?

A rarity among novelists, Shriver examines these challenges from the viewpoint of the social conservative. I said at the outset that the novel seems to belong to the liberal mind, and, at a certain level of abstraction, I doubt I ever stop believing this. Try to imagine Germinal as a story that advances the interests of the coal mine’s owners. It wouldn’t even be a story; it would just be real, miserable life, thrown back in our hopeless faces. Literature exists, to paraphrase Don Delillo, to unmask dehumanizing systems.

So any novelist who breaks with liberal orthodoxy risks being perceived as a defender of the ruling class, a prospect that doesn’t seem to frighten Shriver. An American emigre ensconced in London, she openly cheers the rights of northern Europeans to defend the cultures that have made their countries so attractive to refugees and immigrants. And she is not made queasy by the link between Europe’s enlightened political culture and its national–let’s just call them ethnic–identities. A character in her 1998 novel The New Republic speaks for her on this point. He is picturing a Turkish quarter of Berlin circa 2000:

And you walk down the street and everyone’s talking Turkish? And it’s hard to find a Pilsner anymore, like, all you can find is, I don’t know, mead, or whatever Turkish people drink. Know what a place like that is called? Turkey. There wouldn’t even be a Germany anymore.

Shriver speaks unapologetically from conservative ground, which she clearly regards as philosophically solid. The liberal defender of universal human rights?–that person was produced by the established powers. This is the unsettling assumption from which her novels spring: in order to achieve human decency, you must first protect your own capacity to empathize, reason and act, and these capacities are outgrowths of political power. As a member of a strong, prosperous society, you might find yourself to the left of Noam Chomsky, but you got there on the backs of the old guard.

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Big Brother is a very good novel, and of course it would not be one if it merely shadow-boxed the caricature of an ideological battle I’ve indicated so far. The antagonist, Pandora Halfdanarson, is a successful but small-time entrepreneur in small-town Iowa. She believes in hard, thankless work and in the comforts of staying behind the scenes. Her politics is a kind of active passivity: “I didn’t hold many opinions. I didn’t see the point of them. If I opposed the production of non-germinating disease-resistant corn, it would still be sold. I considered most convictions entertainment, their cultivation a vanity, . . . . Refusal to forge views for social consumption made me dull, but I loved being dull. Being of no earthly interest to anyone had been a lifelong goal.”

But one day Pandora becomes of great interest to her older brother, Edison, a jazz pianist who had run away from their LA home to New York at 17. After surprising early success, Edison, now 43, is washed up, short on cash, and turned out of his apartment. And he is morbidly obese. Pandora does not recognize him when she picks him up from the airport. Big Brother tells the story of the soul searching that leads Pandora help Edison and of the heroic effort it costs.

Big Brother is many things. At times it is a fascinating meditation on the phenomenology of eating and satiety. Not only is the pleasure of eating good food somehow elusive despite being undeniable–“more concept than substance, food is the idea of satisfaction, far more powerful than satisfaction itself,”–but when you consider how awful much of our food is, the tendency to overeat becomes downright mysterious. Shriver is also concerned to examine the issue of obesity writ large (yes, I said that). As a social problem, morbid obesity is unique to rich societies but increasingly concentrated among their poorer classes. How did that happen?

Shriver repeatedly proves herself capable of moving off the standard conservative line on obesity, which is more or less: You did this to yourself, now deal with it. Early on in the plot, Pandora evinces the conservative’s standard flintiness. Her touchy-feely teenage daughter, Cody, asks if the newly humongous version of Uncle Edison is sick, to which Pandora replies, “According to the latest thinking on the subject, yes.” But later, Shriver’s inner voice softens as she tries to put America’s ambivalence on weight, body image, and diet in perspective. In this passage, surveying the disorienting array of weight-loss diets and the broader, conflicted trends of supersizing, Shriver is worthy of that liberal avatar Kurt Vonnegut. There was such deep confusion on display in the multitudinous ways to lose weight. But also:

You could see it in the market for airline seat-belt extenders, “Big John” toilet seats, 800-pound-rated shower chairs, and “LuvSeats” for couples of size to have sex. You could see it in the popular websites like BigPeopleDating.com, but you could also see it in the prestige designation of size-zero jeans and in the host of Cody’s classmates who’d been hospitalized for starving or throwing up. You couldn’t help but wonder what earthly good was a micro-processor, a space telescope, or a particle accelerator, when we had mislaid the most animal of masteries. Why bother to discover the Higgs boson or solve the economics of hydrogen-powered cars? We no longer knew how to eat.

And so on.

The cruelest impact of the system that brought pandemic obesity to America is the apathy trap it springs on overeaters. When Pandora sits Edison down for the requisite straight talk about slimming down to avoid an early death, he brings her directly to the crux. Yes, he sees the self-destructive arc of his gluttonous trajectory, and, yes, in an abstract way, he wishes he could be rid of the weight. But, he intimates: “There’s the one little problem of my not giving a shit.” For Edison, overeating is a conscious abandonment of all other priorities, which he re-affirms several times a day, with each meal. Pandora diagnoses, correctly, one thinks, “That was, of course, not one problem, but the problem.”

So Edison stays on in Iowa, and his sister sets out to save him, by way of a demonically severe crash diet. They move in together, the better to effect a full-on intervention. It works, but there’s a major catch. Pandora’s disciplined, meticulous husband Fletcher despises Edison. He lays down conditions for Pandora’s rescue project that build to an ultimatum: leave Edison or face divorce.

The one weakness of Big Brother, for me, is the underdevelopment of Fletcher. Shriver tells us repeatedly that Pandora loves him and that it is, therefore, a hard decision to leave him temporarily to help Edison. But then Shriver does such a better job of showing us all of Fletcher’s unattractive zeal and sanctimony that it is somewhat hard to sympathize with his rather reasonable requests that Pandora try to balance her duties to her family of choice and family of origin. Pandora, he argues, is not just volunteering her goodwill by helping her brother, but the whole family’s. Fletcher provides the pivot on which the novel’s main question turns–To whom do we owe moral obligations, and do our obligations come in gradations? When must a person go all out for someone else, and if marriage is an all-in commitment, can one ever make large sacrifices outside that bond?

Late in the novel, after a stunning twist (SPOILER ALERT upcoming), Pandora reflects on the calculus by which she tried to measure out her obligations to her brother: “I could not have said, ‘I will help you lose weight for three months but not four.’ Once I assumed the role of my brother’s keeper, there would have been no limit, don’t you see? And who’s to say whether such an escapade wouldn’t have ruined my marriage . . . ?”

Shriver’s final summation of the problem is bleak, but honest, one feels. “It is impossible,” she writes, “to gauge what you owe people. Anyone, of course, but especially the blood relation, for as soon as you begin to calculate the amount you’re obliged to give, . . . you’re done for.” By risking entanglement with a self-destructive person, one undermines one’s moral agency, the very basis for moral decision-making. Who is my neighbor? I cannot know.

The story of Pandora’s rescue of Edison turns out to be a fiction within a fiction–an act of liberal imagination within a framework of conservative caution. It did not happen. In “fact,” Pandora met the terms of Fletcher’s ultimatum early in the plot and put Edison on a plane back to New York and ruin. The story she spun in her head about saving Edison was a way of thinking through her options. In the end, her choice to leave Edison to his own devices was guided by statistics and leavened with an existential intuition. The great majority of morbidly obese people who lose large amounts of weight gain it back. That in itself made Edison a bad bet, not worth the risk of losing a good marriage. But there was also this: the achievement of any goal is always followed by a feeling of “what’s next?” Once Edison made it to the Promised Land of mesomorphy, who would define his next horizon? Was Pandora going to hold his hand for the rest of his life? Would this not have been a disappearance of Edison from his own life?

Shriver gives a fair, robust hearing to the liberal orthodoxy that we are here to help others and to see our reflection in them. But she also plumbs a deeper, Conradian mystery of human existence. It has directly to do with hunger, desire and struggle. About hunger, she writes, it may be bad, but “satiety is worse. . . . We are meant to be hungry.”

Here are two other reviews of Big Brother that you might enjoy. As usual, to keep my thoughts fresh, I wrote my review before I read these.

Guardian review

NPR review

 

2 thoughts on “Review of “Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver

  1. Determining our moral obligation to others is perhaps a more pressing issue than ever right now. Thank you for this fascinating review. Shriver never gives us an easy ride and nor should she.

    Like

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