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You haven't seen your beloved older brother in years. Then he shows up at the airport, weighing hundreds of pounds more than the last time you saw him.
That's the premise of Lionel Shriver's new novel, Big Brother. A touchy topic for our ever-widening times? Oh yeah - and meant to be.
"We've lost our innocence about food," the fit-looking Shriver told me over tea and biscotti at Washington's Dupont Circle Hotel on June 11. "What we use food for today has little to do with our actual needs."
In Big Brother, Pandora Halfdanarson (the name could use some slimming itself) invites her jazz-musician brother, Edison Appaloosa (ditto), to stay with her family. The end result is an unexpected disaster.
The novel's genesis came from her own brother's death in 2009, at age 55, from complications of morbid obesity. (At 5-foot-7, Greg Shriver weighed almost 400 pounds.) "It's much easier to stay trim than it is to lose weight," says Shriver. "And shedding pounds gets harder as you age."
The author does not hate food, as the press in her adoptive England has reported. "That's an obtuse interpretation of a book that celebrates food," she says. "Food is like sex: It doesn't last very long, and there's only so good it can get. Food often stands for love in our lore, but it isn't the love itself."
Shriver believes that we "too frequently turn to food to feed appetites that food can't satisfy, which is why in our country people gain weight back - they still aren't satisfied, and they often don't know why."
That may be why, she muses, fat is now seen as a character flaw.
Having loved her brother through all his stages and sizes, Shriver sees obesity as a health problem that demands understanding: "Someone of Edison Appaloosa's size can be an assault on your personal and psychic space. But compassion is a deliberate decision. We should regard homeless people as human beings, not obstacles - and we should see fat people the same way."
Shriver's books are known for pushing hot buttons. Her disturbing 2003 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, features a mother who must confront the aftermath of a school shooting perpetrated by her difficult son. The book was made into an equally disturbing film starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly in 2011.
Indeed, the intense author seems most at home with things that put us on edge. "For me," she says, nibbling a biscotti, "the danger is getting too comfortable. You're meant to be hungry."