Mona Awads assimilating novel 13 Styles of Seeming at a Fat Girl goes where few novelists still dare into the mind of a heavyweight woman
At first, I was taken aback by the lack of incident in Mona Awads otherwise assimilating new novel, 13 Ways of Appearing At a Fat Girl. The protagonist, a woman named Elizabeth living in southern Ontario, simply grows up, gains weight, loses it, get married, gets divorced. Thats it.
Few novelists are comfy with this quiet of a plot. In order to sustain it you either have to have to construct a narrator of unusual reflective capabilities, or one with an undeniably interesting characteristic, something any reader wants to know more about. And Awad opts for the latter. It seems blunt Elizabeth is mostly interesting because she is as the title says fat.
In this novel, to be clear, fat is a state of mind. Elizabeth herself discontinues to be physically overweight at some point, but remains preoccupied by the condition throughout. The preoccupation is communicated subtly Elizabeth doesnt ruminate about her weight much, but shes unable to get through a page without a catalogue of food or a comment on the fit of her garment. Awads prose style is spare, which keeps the novel from descending into voyeurism, though it also means that Elizabeth spends much of the book hide from the reader. Shes not comfy enough to linger for more than a paragraph or two of interiority.
Flashes of personality do come. When Elizabeth truly get her back up about her situation in life, she can be scathing, funny, cruel. A co-worker insists, constantly, on ordering a rich lunch and aloud celebrating while Elizabeth sips black tea and contemplates the co-workers faults 😛 TAGEND
Theres her groaning and theres her stick legs and theres her aggressively jutting clavicles. Theres the Cookie Monster impression she does after she describes food she loves( Om-Nom-Nom !). Theres how the largeness of the scone seems merely to emphasize her impossible smallness. Chiefly, theres the fact that she exists at all.
This sort of intrafeminine aggression will be familiar to most women, whatever side of the body war theyve been on. But it is is a side of experience that hasnt been much explored by literary novelists. It feels difficult to fictionalise, and poeticise, apparently, in ways that dont simply descend into clich. People can blithely write literary fictions inspired by Justin Bieber, by tabloid crime victims, by half-baked notions about WikiLeaks. But to address fat, with few exceptions, seem to be tread too close to the vulgar. There is something uncomfortably literal about it.
There are, of course, fat characters in volumes out there, some of them quite enduring and famous. But they tend to be beings of young adult, or commercial fiction. The first fat daughter I recollect coming across was Linda Fischer, who was the Blubber in a Judy Blumes book of the same name. But the reader was not really let, in that volume, to know Linda. Blume does not tell the narrative from her view. In an solely admirable effort to discourage bully, Blume stayed in the head of one of Lindas tormentors. But this compounded, for me and Im sure for the books legions of readers, the idea that to be fat is to be fundamentally alone and somehow unknowable.
Then, in my adolescence, encouraged by Oprah, a new archetypal fat daughter arrived on the scene: Dolores Price in Wally Lambs Shes Come Undone, a popular Oprah Book Club pick that I suppose just about everyone read or heard about in 1996. There was something altogether too literal about Dolores her lifes path was already there in the name. She had been sexually abused; the novel presented her enormous circumference as a direct consequence of her suffering. There was little experience of her fat to account for other than detesting it.
It is no secret, of course, that people have strong feelings about fat impressions that seem merely to have been inflamed by the sense, in western countries, that there is an obesity crisis afoot. Fears about health have mutated into a kind of panic attending any mention of fat people at all. To touch the subject is to break a very thin seal of civility. Lately, Sarai Walker, the author of another volume about a fat woman called Dietland, wrote in the New York Times that shed been surprised by the strong reactions people had to her volume. I felt like a witch surrounded by torch-wielding villagers, she wrote of one of her promotional appearances.
The judgment does not simply come from outside, either. Fat is not immoral, Hilary Mantel wrote in her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. There is no link between your waistline and your ethics. But though you insist on this, in your own intellect, everything tells you youre incorrect; or, lets say, youre going in for the form of intellectual discrimination that cuts against the perception of the majority of the population, who know that overweight people are lazy, undisciplined slob. She goes on to point out that the perception is not true, of course, but even for a person of her intelligence, sometimes impossible to dismis. Mantels Beyond Black, my favourite of her fictions, dedicates us a fictional version of this argument in Alison, a clairvoyant whose weight is an ever-present thing without overwhelming the plot.
Awads Elizabeth is a animal closer to Mantels Alison than to Blubber, or Dolores Price. In the early chapters of the fiction, she is neither wholly ashamed nor wholly embracing of herself. Set into a revealing outfit by her mom, mid-weight-loss, she is not quite upset. Tonight, shes trussed me up in a one-strap midriff-baring bit of turquoise gauze she bought me this afternoon at the rack, she reports. Subsequently, she adds: My broad slash of bare belly feels like an emergency no one is attending to, my feet like theyre doing bad porn under the table. Another kind of novelist would make this kind of thing into an opu of shame, recounting the zippers that wont close, the cheap nylon mortification of it all. Instead, Elizabeth is amused.
But this folding of fat into experience eventually hollows Elizabeth out. A tragedy hits and that bemused Elizabeth simply fades away. It will not spoil your experience of the book to say the novel objective , not entirely fulfilling, in view of a fitness center. In the last few lines both Awad and Elizabeth seem to be trying to persuade her, over all the cliches that attach to pedalling nowhere, that her obsession with weight has not doomed her to any particular fate. The effect is subtle, but poignant , not least because youre not quite sure where the author lands on the subject.
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