New Novels Consider Central Characters with Obesity

Four new novels explore the viewpoint of central characters with severe obesity. Hannah Rosefield, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, suggests the books in this small but growing genre use their characters’ struggles with class III obesity to bring new understanding to a familiar theme in literature: the outsider. Butter by Erin Lange, Big Ray by Michael Kimball, Heft by Liz Moore, and The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg each delve not only into the day-to-day physical challenges faced by someone carrying scores of extra pounds, but the social and psychological challenges as well. As Rosefield reflects on the treatment of obesity in these books:

“Obesity is a metaphor for something more universal. The obese body becomes a tool to explore not only — not even primarily — the physical experience of obesity in contemporary society, but also the sensation of being out of place in the world. The obese characters in these novels literally do not fit their surroundings. Ray stops driving because he is so fat he cannot fit behind a steering wheel. Butter has to use a specially built double-size desk at school. Arthur can no longer climb the stairs of his house. The fat person in these novels is at once outsider and everyman, the latter both because the average American is fat, and getting fatter, and because being an outsider — the odd one out, unlovable, looked upon with disgust — is a universal fear. The obese body is one through which we can confront questions much older than the late 20th century: What if we are the odd ones out? What if, merely by existing, we are causing others to laugh and point at us?”

Given the fact that obesity touches nearly every person in the U.S. either in their own lives or in the lives of a loved one, Rosefield is glad to see novelists tapping into a life experience heretofore undermined in the literary world and gives the books high praise. However, she is also disappointed the authors chose to portray obesity as individually-driven.

“Rather than ask how contemporary society enables obesity, these novels ask what is wrong with these particular individuals, why they and not others are victims of an obesity-enabling society. If the personal is political in these books, it is so only fleetingly.”

Click here to read Rosefield’s analysis in the Los Angeles Review of Books.