We need to talk about Lionel Shriver


Yesterday evening at Kings Place Lionel Shriver was in conversation with Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s literary editor, about her recently published novel: Big Brother.

She joked that the title works wonderfully for those who know that the book is about an obese older brother to Pandora, the narrator. But doesn’t work at all well for those who don’t realise this and wonder if she’s attempting to write yet another novel about Big Brother in the Orwell, totalitarian sense.

Shriver has written earnestly about her own obese brother who died in recent years from obesity-related complications. And she makes no secret that this book was in part inspired by him. But she quickly snapped back when Armitstead raised the dreaded ‘autobiography’ label that Shriver feels so many critics accuse her of, explaining all the ways in which Big Brother is fictional, and asking – comically – for some credit in this respect.

I haven’t read Big Brother yet but this didn’t detract from the talk. Shriver mused frankly, and generously, about her own family relationships, and the fear she felt at the prospect of taking her brother into her home post-gastric-surgery. She asked: what are sibling obligations? What do siblings owe each other when they grow up? Would she have made the ultimate sacrifice and taken her brother in? Well – he died three days after the issue was raised.

She concluded that – with sibling-giving – it’s generally: the more you give, the more you owe.

In the book, Pandora does take her brother in, in fact – she leaves her family home and lives with him for a year, embarking on a liquid diet to support him with his weight loss programme. Shriver explained that her family hadn’t done this – and hinted that this book is perhaps her way of living out the reality she might have experienced, had her brother undergone surgery and survived.

She shared the sadness she feels about how fat people are ostracised by society. They have an extra burden of being overweight – extra, because strangers see the fat and judge. We all, she says, have faults (stinginess, for example) but they’re invisible, whilst fat is not.

The truth, according to Shriver, is that all the attention we give to obesity is actually making us fatter; the more we think about food, the fatter we get. “I should,” she said, “be saying that there’s an obesity epidemic, we all need to lose weight. But I’m not because the problem is the emphasis people place on it.”

She wants people to understand that the outer shell isn’t connected, necessarily, to our inner self. She has personally experienced the sense of disembodiment that her narrator Pandora feels, which she hopes is universal. It isn’t something that I could connect with but when she explained it further: that old people feel like the same person they’ve always been inside, and yet passers by will just see them as an old person. It made more sense. This is the same with fat people.

A fat person doesn’t play the piano like a fat person, or think like a fat person, she said. We obsess too much about weight, and yet weight isn’t who we are; it isn’t how we should identify with ourselves.

Next she moved onto Pandora as narrator. Is she a reliable narrator? Shriver explained that we see the story from Pandora’s perspective and that she doesn’t lie but that it is her perception of the events and so it’s biased. She compared this narrator to Kevin’s mother in We Need to Talk about Kevin – who skews the truth to convince herself (and the reader) that her son is evil, and not her.

But, she said: we’re all unreliable story tellers. Every time we tell a story, we tell it to suit our purpose. So when we make an anecdote funny (even if what happened wasn’t funny at the time), or exaggerate for theatrical purposes – we’re lying.

Towards the end, Shriver discussed an article she wrote for the Saturday Guardian Review, for which she had to research celebrities and their diets. She was astounded by how much information is available and how sought after it is. If people think she’s obsessed with her own weight, they’re wrong, she said: she’s merely highlighting our shared, Western obsession.

She also mentioned an ES reviewer who she felt liked her book, but hated her. The reviewer said that in the book Pandora hates food and insinuated that this is the true feelings of the author being channeled through her narrator. Shriver found this insulting, as she loves food, eating and cooking and believes this to be an inaccurate representation of Pandora, and of her.

As an author, she said, you have authorial responsibility and she felt that hers was not to encourage people to diet. It was this, apparently, that helped her decide the ending of the book. The media do give Shriver a hard time, and after spending the most fascinating hour listening to her talk, make the audience laugh, share stories – and really open up – the only reason I can imagine they might do this is because they are jealous of her success and intimidated by her confidence.

I found her charming, inspiring and sophisticated. She is a serious woman, who takes her work seriously – but who can fault her for this?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *